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I'd like to improve my writing and have been considering getting either The Elements of Style by Strunk and White or Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Williams and Colomb. What are their relative strengths and weaknesses? Why might one be better for me than the other?

I'm a graduate student in engineering, but also like writing in general. Thus, I want to improve my writing specifically in technical settings, but also in general. I'm considering these two books because I've heard good things about both and because they're supposed to be short and to the point. Knowing myself, even they might be pushing the boundaries of what I'll actually get through if I find reading them to be tedious.

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50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice –  RegDwight Feb 8 '11 at 19:07
    
If you want to assess them both before committing to buying one, you can check them out from your local library. –  Bruce Alderman Feb 8 '11 at 20:50
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@RegDwight: thank you so very much for that link. It's a very interesting and amusing read. And it may save me the money I'd eventually have spent on Strunk&White ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 9 '11 at 16:34
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@RegDwight & @jae: Sin and Syntax is a modern and more suitable alternative to The Elements of Style. –  D-Day Feb 9 '11 at 17:20
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@jae: Many libraries throughout the world participate in interlibrary loan programs that let them borrow books from other libraries for their patrons. I don't know how many small-town German libraries offer interlibrary loan, but the smaller their own collections, the more they can benefit from such a program. –  Bruce Alderman Feb 9 '11 at 17:24
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up vote 4 down vote accepted

I highly recommend Williams and Colomb's Style. Throughout the book they focus heavily on three ideas:

  • What do readers expect?
  • What choices can writers make?
  • How do the writer's choices affect the reader's expectations?

For example, where other books might admonish not to use passive voice, Style describes the effects of passive voice, and through examples demonstrates where you might want those effects, and where you might not.

I've applied two ideas in particular. First, begin a sentence with familiar information, and place new information at the end. Beginning with familiar information connects with readers and orients them to the topic of the sentence. Once oriented, the reader can make better sense of the new information, and relate it to what has come before. Writing sentences this way increases cohesion and narrative flow.

Second, the end of a clause or sentence or paragraph is the "power position." Readers tend to read the words in those positions with a little extra emphasis. So identify the information that you want the reader to emphasize, and shift that information to the end.

Again, I highly recommend Style. For several years I bought each new edition as it came out, partly to see what new ideas Williams and Colomb offered, but mostly as a refresher.

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Thanks for actually providing some details about Style 's strengths compared to other books. Between your recommendation and RegDwight's comment scaring me away from Elements , I think I'll go with Style for now and look into Sin and Syntax afterward. –  Brandon Feb 11 '11 at 1:18
    
I liked Elements, too, but I found Style more immediately applicable. It's possible that when I read Elements (long ago) I just wasn't ready to apply it. If you like Style, and want more in the same vein, consider Martha Kolln's excellent Rhetorical Grammar. It's far more readable than the title suggests. –  Dale Emery Feb 11 '11 at 1:36
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It's not a "vs" thing. Get them both. Learn from both.

Edit:

I've only read Strunk & White. Planning to read Williams. There's a very simple reason why you would get them both and learn from them both.

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Strunk & White is $12 on Amazon (link).

The 3rd Edition of Williams is $15 on Amazon (link).

Both of them are bestsellers and you can just read the Amazon comments (but also google them to see how many people have been influenced by both).

So obviously, what is contained in both books is widely held as wisdom.

Get them both (if you can afford it). Learn from them both.

Edit (2):

There are already two answers here, one for what Strunk is (technical focus), and what Williams is (people focus). At least, that's my reading of what Dale is saying about Williams.

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please clarify what the author would get out of both. It would help us all! –  justkt Feb 8 '11 at 18:35
    
It's a pragmatic thing. Editing answer. –  Stu Andrews Feb 8 '11 at 22:21
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The Elements of Style is fundamental and applies to all forms of writing. I'm not familiar with Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, so I'm unable to comment on it.

Since your interest lies with writing in a technical setting, I suggest you also look at some style guides for technical writing. Jean Weber has a fairly comprehensive list of books related to technical writing on her blog, Technical Editors' Eyrie. See her list of Technical editing and style guides.

UPDATE: Based on a couple comments on the original question, I recommend checking out Sin and Syntax if you're disinclined to use The Elements of Style. I read it a year or so back and I've found it more useful than Elements. I keep them side-by-side on my desk, along with The Chicago Manual of Style.

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If you cite Elements of Style in a grammar battle with an editor, you win (unless he can counter with Chicago Manual of Style.) The same will not be true of Basics of Clarity and Grace.

However, Basics of Clarity and Grace is a much better book to use as a way to actually LEARN grammar. I find Elements of Style more useful as a reference.

In short, as a reference get Elements of Style (and the Chicago Manual) as a learning tool, get Basics of Clarity and Grace.

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Actually, you don't win, because <i>Elements</i> isn't a grammar book, it's a style book. –  Ralph Gallagher Feb 23 '11 at 13:45
    
Ralph, be that as it may in a theoretical sense, in the real world when dealing with real editors, it goes from God, to the Chicago Manual of Style, to the Elements of Style, to my third-grade English teacher said... –  ArcticLlama Mar 4 '11 at 17:14
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