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Finally, a writing guide for the 21st Century

Last month while I was teaching a writing 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.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

3 comments on “Finally, a writing guide for the 21st Century

  1. Great recommendation, Kristen! Thanks for sharing it. I’ve heard good things about Pinker, so I’m interested to see what he’s got to say on the subject.

  2. Hrm…sounds like I need to get this one. Great post, Kristen 🙂

  3. Thanks. Love the quote. Refreshing comments in some of the reviews also. Debating between Kindle and hard copy!

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