The English language is confusing and full of nuances—that’s why we have style guides. They help us keep our tools and our rules straight. I recommend three.
These short but indispensable style guides have taught me more about writing and grammar than I’ve learned in any classroom. Each stands on its own, but together they encompass just about everything you need to know to write well.
I’ve included PDFs of two of the best style guides in this blog post so you can print them out and pin them up next to your writing desk, or share them with your friends or writing group.
The Elements of Style
Start with The Elements of Style to make sure you’ve covered your basics. Learn why the Oxford comma is important, the difference between passive and active voice, and how to use the proper case of pronoun.
Strunk and White’s popular book of English grammar, usage and composition is only available in print, but it’s well worth the cost. It’s guaranteed to take your writing to the next level by strengthening your foundations.
The Tools of the Writer
Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period plays jazz.
The Tools of the Writer is a single page, numbered and categorized list of writing “tools” created by Roy Peter Clark. This one, especially, has informed my short fiction. It’s broken down into four categories of interest for easy reference: Sentences and Paragraphs, Language, Effects, and Structure.
Roy Peter Clark also hosts the “Roy’s Writing Tools” podcast series available for free on iTunes U. It’s a little bland, but worth checking out if you wish to sharpen your technique.
The Star Copy Style
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. be positive, not negative.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, of The Star Copy Style, “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”
Created by journalists and editors at the Kansas City Star, The Star Copy Style is useful because it teaches by example. “Don’t split infinitives,” one paragraph reads. “He wanted to live longer, not to longer live.”
It does feel a bit dated at times. For instance, we don’t say “electrocised” anymore. But it still serves a purpose by reminding us that language is always in flux.
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