Good grammar is a lost art. Even many English teachers give it short shrift these days, and it’s possible to sail through years of schooling without addressing bad habits. But your mistakes add up. Weak writing can lead to lower grades, make a bad first impression with employers, and hold you back from being an effective communicator, in ways you might not even realize.
Students are sometimes dubious about the benefits of learning grammar. They’ve gotten this far without worrying about a dangling participle, so why should they start now? Well, if you’re a student, your future could hold not only college essays, but applications, cover letters, reports, newsletters, and, if nothing else, many, many emails. A good style guide now will save you grief later.
Good Writing Takes Work
Good grammar might not matter on social media, where colloquialisms are king and emojis do the heavy lifting. But our casual habits don’t translate to the “real” world. It takes deliberate effort to learn to write well, and although there’s no quick fix, a style guide is as close to a shortcut as you’ll get. You’ve probably seen ads for spell check software like Grammarly, but those can’t really fix weak writing—at best they add salt to a bad soup. There’s simply no substitute for knowing the principles of good composition.
Where to Start
While there are many quality style guides out there, I always recommend a classic, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. Not only is the latest edition full of charming illustrations, but the advice is straightforward and immediately useful.
In this text, you won’t have to leaf through pages of explanation about predicates and participles. The book provides the kind of tips you’ll actually want to know. If you’ve ever wondered how to choose between a colon, dash, or comma, or how to properly use a semicolon, the first section will clear up some confusion. There’s also a fun section on commonly misused words and expressions—I cringed when I saw a few of my own mistakes here!
If you consider yourself a fairly good writer already, you may find the more substantive sections, “Elementary Principles of Composition” and “An Approach to Style,” particularly useful. These contain great reminders that will stick in your mind the next time you face a blank page or a tangled paragraph. Tips like “express coordinate ideas in similar form” and “don’t overwrite” give you go-to solutions the next time you face a writing problem. When you’re staring at a messy first draft, unsure of the best way forward, Strunk and White will have some strong suggestions for you, and you can’t go wrong if you follow their advice.
No Time Like the Present
To jumpstart your progress, here’s one of the topics from The Elements of Style. This tip addresses an issue I see all the time in essays. I know students feel pressure to sound “smart” in their writing, which can result in overly formal or abstract diction, with overwrought sentences and words plucked from a thesaurus. In response, I refer you to this precept: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” In the example from the book, “A period of unfavorable weather set in” becomes “It rained every day for a week.” The latter sentence is easier to picture, more exact in its meaning, and clearer in every way.
Applying this kind of revision to your first draft can actually be pretty fun. Search your own essay for opportunities to be more specific, or just simpler. Did you write “commence a reading of” when you meant “begin to analyze”? What about “throughout history” when you meant “from the beginning of the 20th century”? Give it a try, and see if this tip is useful for you. Style guides have something for everyone, and I hope you take a look.
Are you looking for additional information on the writing process? We can certainly help. Feel free to browse the blogs below, or