Stephen King recommends only one book on writing
And here’s the summary.
…most books about writing are filled with bullshit…One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White…I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.
Says Stephen King in his book, On Writing. And I’m inclined to believe he’s right — he’s Stephen King after all. But what makes this book so insightful, especially considering it's barely 100 pages and written in 1918?
Here are my 6 biggest takeaways from The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
1. Use active voice
A sentence in an active voice often follows the structure of: Doer of action + Action + Receiver of action. Conversely, a sentence in a passive voice switches the position of doer and receiver.
- ❌ Passive voice: “The letter (receiver) was mailed (action) by John (doer).”
- ✔️ Active voice: “John (doer) mailed (action) the letter (receiver)”.
Active voice is preferred because its word order aligns with how we think—we generally think of the doer before the receiver. It’s also less wordy and complicated. Use active voice to make reading your sentence easier.
2. Use positive form
- ❌ Negative form: “He is not very often on time.”
- ✔️ Positive form: “He is usually late.”
Both versions seem to mean the same thing, but the negative form makes you sound unsure and needlessly lengthens the sentence.
Words like “not” should only be used to deny or negate, and never to soften your assertion.
3. Use specific language
Memorable writing uses specific language. Express your point using tangible, physical language rather than abstract, general language.
- ❌ General language: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.”
- ✔️ Specific language: “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”
The use of tangible words in specific language help readers visualize your message; use it to make translating words into thoughts easier.
On a side note, the highly-rated book Made to Stick states tangible ideas are also more memorable. Just think of the urban legends and century-old fables you know — notice the lack of abstract concepts.
4. Omit needless words
Strunk explained this perfectly:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
5. Principle of parallel construction
Similar ideas should be expressed using a similar structure.
- ❌ “Formerly, the textbook method was used for teaching science, while now the lab method is employed.”
- ✔️ “Formerly, science is taught by the textbook method; now it’s taught by the lab method”
Don’t vary your construction simply to prevent repetition (which I was guilty of) — parallel construction tells readers that the ideas are related, making your message clearer. The repetition is a feature, not a bug.
6. Place prominent words/phrases at the end
Let me illustrate this with a joke: “There’s a guy in this coffee shop sitting at a table, not on his phone, not on a laptop, just drinking coffee, like a psychopath.”
Imagine how boring it’ll be if the punch phrase is moved forward: “There’s a guy in this coffee shop, sitting at a table like a psychopath, not on his phone, not on a laptop, just drinking coffee.”
A prominent phrase belongs at the end of the sentence.