There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of writing guides out there. But in my opinion, none surpass the simple, direct advice of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B.White.
This classic serves up much good advice, especially in the last 20 pages in a section titled “An Approach to Style.” Nowhere have I seen more helpful advice in so few words and with such precision. This is why I always keep this book within reach.
Sign Up for Your Free Assessment
Give us 30 minutes and we’ll transform how you sell online.
This offer is free for a limited time.
If (for shame) you don’t already have this reference in your library, I will leave it to you to explore it in depth. But I would like to provide my own version of eight important writing tips as they apply to blogging.
- Put the reader first. The purpose of writing is clear, sometimes persuasive, communication. It is not about you or your clever ideas. If you write to impress, you will distract the reader from the content. Good writing is like a store window. It should be clean and clear, providing an unobstructed view of the contents within.
- Organize your thoughts. You don’t need a detailed outline for most writing. But you do need to know what you want to say before you say it. If you’re comfortable with the sort of outline you learned in school, use it. Otherwise, simply jot down the important points you want to make and arrange them in the order you want to make them. Eliminate any ideas that are not directly related to these points.
- Use short paragraphs. Look at any newspaper and notice how short the paragraphs are. That’s done to make reading easier since our brains take in information better when ideas are broken into small chunks. In ordinary writing, each paragraph develops one idea and includes many sentences. But in blogging, the style is less formal and paragraphs may be as short as a single sentence or even a single word.
- Use short sentences. You should keep sentences short for the same reason you keep paragraphs short: they’re easier to read and understand. Each sentence should have one simple thought. More than that creates complexity and invites confusion.
- Use simple words. Since your purpose is to communicate and not impress, simple words work better than big ones. Write “get” instead of “procure.” Write “use” rather than “utilize.” Use the longer words only if your meaning is so precise there is no simpler word to use.
- Be specific. Don’t write “Many doctors recommend Brand X.” Write “97% of doctors recommend Brand X.” Don’t write “The Big Widget is offered in many colors.” Write “The Big Widget comes in red, green, blue, and white.” Get to the point. Say what you mean. Use specific nouns.
- Write in a conversational style. There is a road sign often posted near construction sites that always irritates me. It reads, “Maintain present lane.” Why so formal? A more conversational style would be better: “Stay in your lane” or “Do not change lanes.” If you write as if you’re wearing a top hat and spats, you distance yourself from the reader and muddle the message.
- Be clear. This may be the most important rule of all. Without clarity, your writing fails on every level. You achieve clarity when you accurately communicate the meaning in your head to the head of your reader. That’s difficult. Look at your writing with an objective eye. Consider what might be misunderstood and rewrite it. Find what is irrelevant and delete it. Notice what is missing and insert it.
When writing fails, it’s probably because you don’t have something to say, are too concerned with affecting a style, or both. Follow the suggestions here, and you will avoid these problems and many others. Plus you will find that your copy is more lively, more meaningful, and more profitable.
Reader Comments (119)
Bill Stevens says
All excellent points, especially the examples in 5, 6 and 7. I love the graphic at the top of the article too.
Outstanding! Thanks for the tips.
Some things never change. Another classic is H.W. Fowler’s “The King’s English” from 1908 or something.
The “Little Book’ -as Will Strunk called it- has always been my favorite resource. There are other style guides, but none that are as straightforward as Strunk & White.
Right next to EoS should be “The Little, Brown Handbook.”
Andy Polaine says
The “top hat and spats” reference made me chuckle.
I wish the “simple words” idea would catch on outside of blogging. Working in government I can’t tell you how often I see utilize rather than use. I don’t know why I hate utilize so much, but I sure do.
Bakugan Battle Brawlers Pack says
Great guide. Always put yourself on your readers’ perspective. Conversational style writing really helps. It flows naturally and give more personal touch.
Jeez this is great advice. I dip out on #2 and a few others. Damn. No wonder nobody calls around.
Strunk and White is definitely a timeless resource and one that I’m glad I have on my desk at all times. Nice pointers on clean copy.. although I must admit, it’s tough to write so concise when Dictionary.com sends me these majestic new 25 cent words everyday.
Great guide, simple like the guide suggests. Write for your audience and their attention span. Readers are most likely not PhD scientists. Write short, simple, paragraphs with everyday wording so they can enjoy the posts.
Good list. I think number 7 can be broken depending on the subject. I wouldn’t write a profile piece in a conversational voice.
Sonia Simone says
Strunk & White is a treasure. Another very fine thing you can do for your writing is to read lots of E.B. White’s other work. Anything–the essays, letters, kids’ books, it doesn’t matter.
I’m not criticizing EoS, but I found it to be quite a handful the first time I read it. I never had formal grammar lessons (for English), so had keep on looking up the meaning of various terms used in the book – like split infinitives, prepositions, etc.
For me, the core lesson I learned from EoS is KISS.
Anne Wayman says
I love it when someone agrees with me 😉 and Strunk and White… what a blessing they are to writers!
Thanks for a great article.
Anne Wayman, now blogging at http://www.aboutfreelancewriting.com
Great Tips 🙂 Hope that pic is not copyrighted, I saved it 😉
Phillip Hines says
It’s funny this post comes up, because my brother Jesse at Robustwriting.com has been preaching the Elements of Style for nearly a year.
Good post. Glad to see others in the blogosphere are looking to valuable resources.
Jessica M says
Great article, often times people worry too much about how many times they should post articles, what time of day to post or what cool widgets to have when in fact the most important blogs elements start with what you say, how you say it and who you say it too. I hope all industries begin to utilize, I mean, use these tips as a guide to effective communication.
Excellent points and thanks for the reference of The Elements of Style I’ll be sure to look for it.
Jesse Hines says
“There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of writing guides out there. But in my opinion, none surpass the simple, direct advice of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B.White.”
I have to agree.
Ryan McLean says
Great writing tips. Brilliant even.
I love your blog keep up the good work
Steve McNamara says
If you like Elements of Style, you’ll love Foundations Of Rhetoric, written by Harvard Prof Adams Sherman Hill, and published by Harper & Brothers, 1896.
The Geek Entrepreneur says
Some great helpful advice which I wish a lot of bloggers would keep in mind- especially in regards to using short paragraphs. Bloggers have to keep in mind that the person reading their post doesn’t want to spend five minutes reading just one paragraph.
The Geek Entrepreneur
Paul C says
Ironically the old stand by carries meaning for 21st century writers. As an English teacher for over 30 years I am convinced that the position will always be in high demand. The challenge is to keep English the most interesting class at school… and to raise a generation of passionate bloggers.
ps. I have my EoS book right next to my Little, Brown book. In between both is Brian Clark’s “Copyblogger Copy Tips” book!
Oh, I forgot, he hasn’t written that yet. I’m just sayin’.
I am really impressed by these tips that would definitely help me :}
Sofie Jamison says
A good article once again on Copyblogger and ditto on Strunk and White as a must for any writer to follow. I think of effective writing in terms of two elements: (1) write what you know, and (2) know your audience. For example, I’ve been sharing travel tips for years but am new to the blogging scene, so I have to keep in mind the differences of the online reader. Thanks for reminding me that classic writing tips continue to hold value.
Melissa Donovan, Copywriter says
These tips are simple, straightforward, and effective. Just the way I like ’em 😉
Thanks for the great tips.
The only problem I have with #5 is that you don’t have to be writing highly technical stuff to need specific words. I have found over and over again that “simple” words are far from that. If people CAN misunderstand the meaning of a word or sentence, they WILL. I struggle, therefore, with using “simple” words that I suspect will be misconstrued, misunderstood, or mis-quoted and so I try to use accurate words, whether or not they are “simple.” Just MHO.
Strunk and White. My college journalism professor used to mark up my papers with “Strunk Rules.” He’d circle any trespasses with red pen and scribble the rule number I broke. Ack. But I learned to stay concise (as I have a tendency to ramble). Thanks for the reminder.
Bamboo Forest says
Great tips. I need to read “Elements of Style” again. I only read it once, and that is hardly enough.
A lot of these tips are similar to ones I learned, and sometimes forget, in journalism school 10 years ago. Be concise and organized are some of the most valuable writing tips a blogger, journalist or anyone who aspires to write well can have.
Ron Miller says
Excellent advice. I discovered Elements of Style in College in the late 70s and it remains my go-to writing guide all these years later. You have provided an excellent synopsis for blog writers. It only goes to show that the publishing outlets may change, but good writing never goes out of style.
By Ron Miller Blog
offensive t shirts says
I have been doing about half of the list and thought I was at my peak but wasn’t happy with the results but now you have giving me another half to work on. I love the use simple words. This one should be easy for me.
Mike Seddon says
Great article and thanks for the run down of the key points in the book. I wonder if it’s too late to add it to my Christmas list 🙂
The only other suggestion I would add (and it’s not possible for everyone) is to get someone else to read your blog post before you post it.
James Jacob says
Absolutely cracking article, incredibly useful – a must read for new bloggers (like me!)
Taufan Putera says
Hi there, i’m Taufan new blogger in the block,came from Indonesia, great article,i’m so very lucky find this web…thanx again for this great article,may i have permission to translate in my language and post it on my blog, http://www.taufanputera.blogspot.com…??
Have great day…and keep inspiring…
Dean Holland says
The process of keeping paragraphs short I totally agree with
You must realise that some attention spans are not that complex so keep it short and informative and people will keep coming back for more 😉
Till next time
My Note Taking Nerd says
People who publish blogs would do well to take these 8 points and turn them into a checklist they run their posts through before unleashing them into their readers vision.
All these points help you keep your writing conversational. This will always be welcomed by your followers.
Note Taking Nerd Numba 2
This post is timely as the book just arrived today in my Amazon shipment – now I can’t wait to get started and see how many rules that I have broken.
Folks that like The Elements of Style will also enjoy On Writing Well by William Zinsser. An easy read inspired by White.
Elements of Style is a wonderful book. Its clear, its to the point and its small. You can carry it around in your briefcase for quick + easy reference.
Thanks for reminding us about it.
Terry Krysak says
Excellent post, I will keep this handy and refer to it often from now on.
Blog Help says
These are some great tips. I think the key is to keep it simple. Focus on writing the content and making it easy to digest for the reader. There is no need for super detailed outlines or flow charts. Just jot down some of the main points and go from there.
Douglas Karr says
Surprised you didn’t touch on use of bullets, subheadings and bold to allow users to better ‘skim’ the content you’re writing.
All very good points and always a good place to get them.
Michael Alexander says
The Elements of Style is free online at http://www.bartleby.com/141/.
Another great tips i found in here. I have read several times of this kind of post but its slightly different among the other that i found. Great tips anyway and i just save those in my notepad. Thanks
F @ Bloggingly says
Well, sounds like Joe Vitale’s Hypnotic Writing! Rocks 😀
Virtual Assistant says
Love this article. Great and useful tips there. Thanks for sharing!
thanks for the advice….my conclusion, try to make your visitor easy and enjoy read your articles and give the visitor more benefits….
Isaac Yassar says
I love the seventh tips, be conversational. It will make the audience feel relaxed and familiar with the contents and the author. Unless you run an army’s blog, perhaps you want to apply it, don’t you?
Julie M says
I realize my comment is waaay down here, but I wanted to comment anyhow. I am constantly analyzing my blog and I do ask some of these questions you mentioned. What I have seen mentioned is the use of simple words. This seems to go against all we have learned about having a large vocabulary. However, I agree. I love the informal style of writing that a blog allows! Thanks for these tips, I will take them to heart!
James Holmes says
Dean – This is a great post with fantastic advice. What I enjoyed most is the way you demonstrate the principles that you teach in the post itself. Ever blogger should invest a few minutes to read through this post and use it as a check list in your personal blogging practices.
This is a great article, thanks for sharing. Very useful!
Very complete list. I have printed it and will keep it handy in the future. Thanks again.
I am really impressed by these tips that would definitely help me
Ice Mom says
Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a great gift for a graduating senior. Under $10 and very useful.
I also like Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools.
Using headlines is also important because people scann text with their eyes. They never read the entire text……very good post.
(content writing services)
Thanks for this informative post. Your tips are excellent.
Isabel Rodrigues - Pro Blogger Journey says
I was searching for a good blogging guide. What better place than copyblogger.
Frankie Cooper says
Excellent writing tips that will come in handy as I write.
This article's comments are closed.