What are the elements of
What are the essential
features of polished writing? What traits or characteristics of language
distinguish accomplished writing from merely competent writing?
If I could teach only five
elements of style, I would select these:
Treat every word as
precious. When readers encounter writing in which every word counts, they are
more alert to its meaning and more attentive to its sound.
You can achieve economy of
language by using three techniques: Avoid wordy phrases (change “until such
time as” to “until”), omit meaningless modifiers (change “general consensus”
to “consensus”), and prefer action verbs to nouns (change “take under
consideration” to “consider”). Each technique enables you to say the same
thing in fewer words, and – as a general rule – more concise writing is more
Concise writing doesn’t
require that you make every sentence short, but that you make every word
word choice and colorful vocabulary.
Use the best, most exact
word to capture your meaning. Readers judge your style by your adeptness and
agility in matching language to thought.
Change “His performance
will affect our image” to “His carelessness will undermine our credibility.”
Convey your disapproval of meaningless modifiers by describing them not as
“qualifiers that weaken our language” but – as E. B. White does in “The
Elements of Style” – as “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking
the blood of words.”
concrete, vivid detail.
As Joseph Conrad advises,
don’t tell your reader; show your reader.
Don’t just tell your
reader, “Susan works hard”; show your reader: “Last month Susan came in at
6:00 a.m. every day to help complete the internal audit on time.” Don’t just
tell your reader, “Morale is declining”; show your reader: “This year
grievances increased by 14%, and employee turnover by 8%.”
Precise language and vivid
detail go handinhand.
sound, rhythm, and variety.
Attend to sound as well as
substance. Create rhythm and emphasis by balancing the components of your
sentence, as Samuel Johnson did when he wrote, “What is written without effort
is in general read without pleasure.”
Enliven your style by
varying the length and structure of your sentences: “For particular emphasis,
follow a long sentence with a short sentence, or even a fragment. Like this.”
It’s not just what you say,
it’s how emphatically, beautifully, and memorably you say it.
voice, tone, or point of view.
Write with personality. As
Patricia Westheimer advises in The Executive Style Book, in all but the
most formal writing, “Write the way you speak – conversationally and
Change “It is imperative
that we commence now” to “Let’s get started.” Change “Attached please find
your budget worksheets” to “Well, it’s your favorite time of year again.”
In forming an opinion of
your style, your readers react to the person they perceive behind the words –
your character, personality, individuality, and sense of humor – as much as to
the words themselves.
Now that I have identified
five elements of style, you might ask, why does style matter? Why don’t we
settle for clarity and correctness?
In its broadest sense,
style is the writer’s ability to manage language in a way that produces a
desired effect and that elicits from the reader a desired response. In this
way, style enables writer and reader to connect.
In business writing, style
is the writer’s ability to create a desired impression, not only of the writer
but also of the writer’s company or organization. In business writing, style
has special significance: It conveys image.
That’s why style is so