Omit Needless Words. (Or: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Elements of Style?)

Part of my Mother’s Day was spent doing what I love best: reading outside on my sunny deck with the sounds of birds and lawnmowers and laughing children in the background. My book of choice this afternoon was Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White. (Yes—the one and only E.B. White. The one who gave us Charlotte’s Web.) Strunk was White’s English professor in 1919 at Cornell University, and this little book was one he privately printed and passed out to all his students. It didn’t actually get published until after Strunk’s death (Strunk died in 1946; the book was published in 1959, with an introduction penned by White—since then, it’s never gone out of print). The tiny book is all of 85 pages, and as I work through it (slowly, thoughtfully chewing on each delicious morsel), each page uncovers another little gem about the craft of writing.

It’s page 23 that contains the best line of the whole book. It’s Strunk’s Rule #17 for principles of composition:

Omit needless words.

Oh the bold simplicity! Why am I only finding out about this book now? Strunk was a minimalist ahead of his time. He knew that good communication means stripping away the unnecessary. Since our great downsizing adventure began, I’ve learned the value of getting by with less. Little did I know I was ascribing to Strunk’s way of thinking. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying every day. As the story of my life unfolds, telling it in the best way means that I:

• Omit needless commitments

• Omit needless possessions

• Omit needless relationships

• Omit needless debt

As I read the book, this handbook for writers is a handbook for life, too: Communicate your purpose clearly. Get rid of the unnecessary. When telling your story, speak in specifics over generalities.

Omit. Then omit again so the good stuff can shine through.


7 thoughts on “Omit Needless Words. (Or: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Elements of Style?)

  1. Cheryl May 15, 2017 / 9:03 pm

    Lovely thoughts, I have heard of this book, and yet have not read it.


    • unwanting May 15, 2017 / 10:39 pm

      I went to some training at Oak Park Library, and the speaker kept referring to “Strunk & White.” It made me curious. I don’t understand how all my years of reading and writing and I’ve never even heard of it before. But I’m glad I’ve found it now! (Or it found me.)


  2. Deb Parkerson Casey May 15, 2017 / 9:22 pm

    One of my favorite books! And one of my favorite theories on writing. Nicely said, Carol!


    • unwanting May 15, 2017 / 10:41 pm

      You will have to tell me about some of your other favorite books. Maybe I will discover some other gems that I’ve somehow missed.


      • Deb Parkerson Casey May 16, 2017 / 1:59 pm

        Absolutely! And you, too, please!! That would be a great blog post from unwanting … a book list!


  3. Kay Novotny September 18, 2019 / 10:10 am

    Oh, Carol. I just found your blog and read this, and I know I’ll have to find a copy of Elements of Style. I have The Writer’s Reference, and The Gregg Manual, but I think that Strunk & White’s classic is what I really need. Over the years, I’ve done editing at my work, but not any of my own writing, and I’m feeling that creative pull . I’m retired, so I now have much more time available. (And through Becoming Minimalist, No Sidebar, and other blogs, I have embraced minimalism.)


    • unwanting September 18, 2019 / 7:08 pm

      Hello, Kay! Thanks so much for writing! Yes, answer that pull to be creative! It’s so good for you, and so good for the rest of the world when you create something for others to enjoy! I’ve read lots of book about writing: right now I’m reading “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Ueland and I like it very much. But I think you will enjoy the Strunk & White. (Also, it’s strange to know that “White” is E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web!”)


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