Have you been tagged in the “Seven-day Book Challenge”?
It’s made the rounds on Facebook lately, as friends call out friends to post covers of their favorite books once a day for seven days running. No explanation, no words—just the cover. It’s intriguing to see the choices my friends make, as I wonder why they chose that book or I discover that we both admire the same author.
While I’ve never written a novel or memoir, I do write for a living. The challenge got me thinking about the writing, style and grammar books that have helped me become a better public relations practitioner. A few come to mind, such as:
- The Associated Press Stylebook, the go-to manual for rules on grammar, punctuation and journalistic style.
- The Lost Art of the Great Speech, by Richard Dowis, an excellent primer for anyone who writes speeches or delivers them.
- All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, a dramatic account of the excellent reporting that brought the Watergate cover-up to a swift, historic close.
But the book I reach for time and again is the slim, 85-page The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
My dog-eared edition is dated 1979, but it was first printed in 1957 when MacMillan Publishing hired White to revise what Strunk called his “little book” on language use for his Cornell English students.
Yes, that E.B. White, author of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web and countless articles in The New Yorker magazine. White remembered the book from his college days at Cornell. Without the late Professor Strunk to advise, he tweaked things slightly and expanded on the original by adding a chapter on “An Approach to Style.” This esteemed tutorial on “writing well” is now in its fourth edition.
I discovered The Elements of Style at my first public relations position when my supervisor lent me her copy my first week on the job. “This is one of my favorite books,” she said.
My first assignment: Write a press release.
While I’d penned research papers and essays in college, I was new to this style of writing. It was reverse-storytelling in a way, putting all the pertinent info at the top of the release, then adding the less dramatic but important details at the end. In addition, it had to be grammatically on point, as eagle-eyed editors could spy sloppy writing a mile away.
My boss was a compassionate coach. She made helpful notes on my draft copy and cited pages in The Elements of Style for reference. The rules of usage and principles of composition came easily, but adopting White’s approach to style took time. Learning to write naturally, as he advised, did not seem natural to me at all. Over time, it did occur.
Today, with countless releases, articles, profiles, reports, publications and speeches behind me, I still reach for my well-loved The Elements of Style as I tuck into new assignments. It’s a familiar reminder for me to:
- Choose active over passive voice – it makes your copy come to life.
- Be clear in your writing – make definite assertions, and avoid noncommittal language.
- Put statements in the positive form – She did not like critics. Critics put her on edge.
- Omit needless words – I was aware that my writing needed help. My writing needed help.
- Avoid overwriting, overstating and fancy words – it takes away from your message.
- Do not write in a breezy manner – be straightforward in your approach.
- Revise and rewrite – don’t be afraid to edit, rearrange and try again.