Improve Your Writing With These Resources

The Elements of StyleWriting is hard. Writing good is harder.

For many of us, the idea of stringing words together into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, is daunting.

Case in point: I procrastinated writing this blog today because I could not figure out how to eloquently say what I want to say!

Thankfully, there are some excellent resources available to help improve and refine your (and my!) writing. While these resources won’t write this blog, or your email/report/letter, they can help sharpen messages and clarify what we are trying to say. Three of my favorites are described below.

1) The Elements of Style, by William Strunk & E. B. White*

Strunk & White are to writing as Julia Child is to cooking. If you write daily – and I am talking more than a few text messages – you should have a copy of this timeless resource for writers. First published in 1957 (but used as early as 1919 as the text for Strunk’s college writing class at Cornell), The Elements of Style has provided writers for decades ways to improve their writing by eliminating unnecessary words and avoiding commonly misused words and expressions.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Elements of Style can be read cover-to-cover in a few hours (I am thinking of you, college-bound seniors!) or used as a reference to check a specific usage question. In fact, I used it to check whether to use “less” or “fewer” in the first sentence of this paragraph. Chapter 5: An Approach to Style provides good writing tips and reminders for anyone honing his or her writing. My favorite tip is #14 – avoid fancy words – unless of course you are writing the Gettysburg Address, where a few well-placed fancy words made a huge impact. (You will need to read Rule #14 to understand this reference.)

2) Bryan A. Garner’s HBR Blog Series on Business Writing

Bryan Garner is my latest grammar crush. Every time I read one of his Harvard Business Review blogs I think, “Ditto what he just said!” Garner describes the importance of good writing and the impacts of bad writing much more eloquently than I ever could, in posts with titles like Write Emails That People Won’t Ignore and Those Grammar Gaffes Will Get You. The blog series is based on his book HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. If anyone ever replaces Strunk & White as the definitive writing guide, it will be Garner.

P. S. Law students and lawyers, follow him on Twitter @BryanAGarner and impress your friends with the law #wotd (word of the day).

3) SAT Question of the Day – for practical experience

We all remember the SAT from high school. It was the dreaded college entrance exam that ate up too many precious Saturday mornings with SAT test prep classes. I have discovered the SAT all over again through the Question of the Day challenge. Each day, the College Board sends out a SAT question to email subscribers or via its app.

Spend a few minutes each day (or every other day, if you don’t care for the math problems) checking your understanding of sentence construction with the SAT Question of the Day. Heck, it beats diagramming sentences!

What resources do you use to improve your writing? I am always looking for new tools and would love to hear about those you have found helpful.

* Yes, that E. B. White.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at hnelson@people-results.com.

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