The Careful Writer: Some Notes on Composition

During my recent reread of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”, this little book yielded more good advice that I wish to share with you.
“The shape of our language is not rigid,” they tell us. “We have no lawgiver whose word is final.” This is because language is fluid and ever-evolving as the artist’s tool of communication. The artist interprets the world; the writer interprets the language to reflect it.

And yet, a basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. To be effective, Strunk and White assert, “writing must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”

In some cases the best design is no design at all (as in a love letter or a casual essay, which is an acceptable stream of conscious flow). But, in most cases—particularly in “storytelling”—planning helps. The first principle of composition is “to determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.”

Jack Bickham, author of Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure reminds us that, “a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events.” Structure, explains Bickham, is the internal part of the story, like the braces of your house; while form is external, what you do with the structure. Structure and form link to construct “story” in a series of scenes that “interconnect in a very clear way to form a long narrative with linear development form posing the story question at the outset to the answering of that question at the climax.”

Strunk and White discuss twenty-two elementary principles of basic composition. Here are a few choice ones.

The 14th Elementary Principle: Use the Active Voice
The active voice is often more direct and vigorous than the passive. Strunk and White note that activating a sentence not only makes it stronger but shorter. “Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor,” they say. Here’s one of their examples:
Passive: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
Passive, indefinite: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered.
Active: I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.
Activating the verb breathes life into the sentence, gives it motion and direction, and empowers both subject and object.
The 15th Elementary Principle: Put Statements in Positive Form
Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating and noncommittal language. “Use the word ‘not’ as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” Here are a few examples:


He was not very often on time.

She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.

[/two] [two_last]Positive

He usually came late

She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.


The 16th Elementary Principle: Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language

Prefer “the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract,” they say. The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers use words that call up pictures. The key is to know what details matter.

Author Jordan Rosenfeld describes your novel as a world in which your reader enters and wants to stay in for a while. You make it easy for the reader by adding concrete details for her to envision and relate to. Ground your readers in vivid setting, rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon your characters to a generic, vague and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead, brighten up their lives by having them speed along Highway 66 in a 1959 red Corvette, sipping a Pinot Noir.

The 17th Elementary Principle: Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk and White tell us. Ray Bradbury once told me that “every word counts” in a story, from the name of your character to the verb you use to activate and give direction to your sentence. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts,” say Strunk and White. Activating your verbs is one excellent way to invigorate your sentences. Strunk and White provide several common expressions that violate concise writing.

The question as to whether
There is no doubt but that
Used for fuel purposes
In a hasty manner
The reason why is that
Her story is a strange one

[/two] [two_last]Just use…
No doubt
Used for fuel
Her story is strange


How about the term the fact that? Strunk and White go into some detail with this rather pesky term. Here are a few examples:

[two]I was unaware of the fact that

Call your attention  to the fact that

In spite of the fact that

The fact that he had not succeeded

[/two] [two_last]I was unaware that

Notify you


His failure


Here are a few other related articles you might find useful:
Five Ways to Improve Your Fiction Writing
Moving from Prosaic to Spectacular
Simplify Your Writing

Bickham, Jack. 1993. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio.
Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. 2000. The Elements of Style. Fourth ed. Longman. New York, NY. 105pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 166pp.
Rosenfeld, Jordan E. 2008. “Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart”. In: Writer’s Digest. February, 2008.

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  1. Thank you for posting these guidelines. It's always good to get a refresher on the mechanics of effective writing. I'll definitely be benefiting from this, Nina.

  2. Thanks, Geoffrey! Your example is wonderfully constructed and shows the power of showing in the now over telling in the past. Thanks again!

    Best Wishes,


  3. I posted the reply before I made my point which is: a story becomes more vivid when you move it into what's actually happening rather than leaving it in the backstory. Also, here's my rewrite of the Boston line:

    Boston remembers my first visit, that's for sure.

    But maybe I'd be telling a different kind of story in that case. 🙂

  4. All excellent advice. A common error that pops up in a lot of novice stories is the use of the indefinite past in order to provide backstory. Like so:

    "He always used to think of clients as little people not worth his attention."


    "He thought of clients as little people not worth his attention."

    much better (IMHO):

    "'Another mental dwarf not worth my attention,' he thought as the client scuttled into the room.

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