Finally, a writing guide for the 21st Century

Last time I taught my Edit Like a Pro: Elements of Fiction seminar, one of the students questioned the absence of The Elements of Style from my recommended reading list.

“It’s a primer,” I said. “If you’re writing novels, you’re beyond Strunk and White.”

That little book is such a milestone for most of us that we often forget that the text on which it is based was written almost a hundred years ago by a college professor whose freshmen students couldn’t write. Prof. Strunk was so irked by the inability of his incoming students to write a coherent paper that he put together a little pamphlet with some basic writing advice for them.

The book was so concise and useful for writing instruction that it had been enthroned as if it were the Alpha and Omega of writing instruction.

computer books writing style
Illustration © viperagp • Fotolia

It’s not. It’s a book for freshmen who don’t know how to write. It’s not even a particularly good one. I won’t go into all the reasons why, because Geoffrey Pullum has already done a thorough takedown of The Elements of Style. Jan Freeman also pointed out one major problem with Strunk and White, which is that is has not been updated to keep pace with language change.

If you’ve come so far as to have completed a draft of a novel, even if it’s a horrid draft, you’ve done more writing than Strunk’s beleaguered freshmen. Move on, friends.

But where to?

That has been the problem. I tell people not to bother with Elements once they’ve reached this point. But where should they turn next?

2015-03-13 14.36.05Finally, finally, I have an answer: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker.

I confess I am only on Chapter One of this excellent book, but Pinker has already won me over with statements like this:

An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.—Pinker, Steven

Pinker gets it. This hits right at the heart of what I’ve been saying since before I compared new writers to garage bands. Novel-writing is the only artistic profession where you’re expected to hide in a garret until your work is perfect. But “mistakes are part of the game.”

The advice in Pinker’s book is level-headed and based not only on his own experience as a writer but on his work in cognitive science. Despite being only a fraction of the way into this book, I have no hesitation about recommending it. It’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to the writing canon.

This post originally appeared at New Authors Fellowship. Apologies to those who’ve now seen it twice.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. YES. Thank you. It’s nice to see someone finally pointing out that Elements of Style is not the perfect, wonderful book that everyone says it is. I hate how many time I’ve been told to look it over. It’s not GOD. It’s just a book, and one that’s out of date.

    I like what I’m seeing with that new book though. I should give it a try!

    1. Yep. At least download the Kindle preview. The introduction alone is worth the time.

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