The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White.
The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.
The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists by Arthur Plotnik.
A dictionary (I prefer Merriam-Webster).
The Associated Press Style Manual (or the Chicago Manual of Style if your employer demands it).
You don’t generally read these over a cup of coffee on the front porch, so their content is a bit challenging to take in. But thanks to Recorded Books, you can now listen to one of them – The Elements of Style – on CD, narrated by award-winning writer Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes.
McCourt’s Irish accent and thoughtful rendition animate E.B. White’s first-person introduction. White (the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) met Strunk while his student at Cornell University, where the professor used his own textbook, The Elements of Style, for the class. White rediscovered Strunk and his book years later, after he was getting paid to be a writer himself (for The New Yorker). McCourt’s voice reflects the pride White felt in being asked to edit his learned professor’s masterwork.
McCourt’s voice resonates with credibility as he pronounces Strunk’s grammar rules. “Omit needless words!” he intones. “Use the active voice. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.” The essay even made me chuckle a couple of times – a feat few grammar books can boast of.
The reading gets a bit drier once McCourt moves into the chapters and examples, but not by much. The benefit to listening is that you can’t skim through anything, so you don’t miss anything.
After a while, you start to get it.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
I borrowed my copy of this wonderful audio book from the library. Get yours and sharpen your own writing skills.