Most English students in America, I’ll wager, are familiar with The Elements of Style. It was included in Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Nonfiction Books, labelling it as one of the most influential books written in English since 1923. Why? Because it taught generations how to write with clear, concise language, and made simple sense of a lot of grammar rules. Students of language and business are also likely to be familiar with Writing That Works, noted in David Ogilvy‘s number one tip for improving your advertising: “read it three times” (also called “the Strunk and White of business writing” by Louis Begley). These books weren’t well known to me growing up in the UK, however, and they’re certainly not the first books I’d have turned to to improve my online writing. But the tips they give are as good as any modern work, reflecting my personal beliefs on direct writing. Their ethos of clear, concise language is a must in the internet age, where short but effective writing is in high demand.
How these style guides will improve your online writing
Writing on the internet is all about getting to the point. Don’t add fluff, don’t be indirect. Online readers have short attention spans, they don’t want unnecessary ambiguity or exposition. These books are all about being clear with what you say. They give a series of rules and examples that explain how to use the English language in a way that will be understood. They are also short, simple and clear themselves – if you want to clarify something, they’re quick points of reference.
The Elements of Style is a list of learning points first written by a Cornell professor in 1918 and later revised by the famous author E.B. White. It includes common errors, punctuation and grammar rules and style points. It has been updated a number of times, but even in its modern form it is a concise collection of rules that will improve the accuracy and conciseness of your online writing.
Writing that Works, written by some of Madison Avenue’s most successful advertisers, takes similar grammar points and puts them into practical business use. Its chapters cover different forms of communication in business, with English rules that will help you practically. Whilst it is marketed as a business manual, in fact it will help anyone communicate clearly, based on the principle that you must say what you mean (because many of us do not).
Both of these books can be used either for regular reference, taking one point at a time, or as something you can read cover-to-cover for detailed insight into the English language. If you write clearly, as these books encourage, you’ll be better understood in business, social media, maybe even in life in general.
Using the books
As the original Elements is dated now, so it’s actually available online – download it in its original form from the Gutenberg project here. I’d recommend owning a copy, though, because you’ll want to re-read it and frequently refer to it. I personally use my copy to help teach English. Get it from Amazon here.
Writing That Works is just as useful for repeated reference, and like Elements it is a small companion guide that won’t take up much space. Get it here.