HackerNews Readings
40,000 HackerNews book recommendations identified using NLP and deep learning

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The Soul of A New Machine

Tracy Kidder

4.6 on Amazon

177 HN comments

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Center for Environmental Structure Series)

Christopher Alexander , Sara Ishikawa , et al.

4.7 on Amazon

176 HN comments

Meditations: A New Translation

Marcus Aurelius and Gregory Hays

4.8 on Amazon

172 HN comments

The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail

Clayton M. Christensen, L.J. Ganser, et al.

4.5 on Amazon

168 HN comments

The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy

Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko

4.6 on Amazon

166 HN comments

Infinite Jest: Part I With a Foreword by Dave Eggers

Sean Pratt, David Foster Wallace, et al.

4.3 on Amazon

166 HN comments

The Elements of Style: Annotated Edition

William Strunk Jr. and James McGill

4.7 on Amazon

155 HN comments

Outliers: The Story of Success

Malcolm Gladwell

4.7 on Amazon

152 HN comments

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

William B. Irvine

4.6 on Amazon

151 HN comments

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Neil Postman and Andrew Postman

4.6 on Amazon

151 HN comments

Stranger in a Strange Land

Robert A. Heinlein, Christopher Hurt, et al.

4.4 on Amazon

151 HN comments

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Joe Ochman, et al.

4.5 on Amazon

150 HN comments

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Charles Duhigg, Mike Chamberlain, et al.

4.6 on Amazon

149 HN comments

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt and Gildan Media, LLC

4.6 on Amazon

144 HN comments

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Roger Fisher , William L. Ury, et al.

4.6 on Amazon

143 HN comments

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Sorted by relevance

atmosxonNov 30, 2020

The most famous book on prose is "the elements of style" but is anachronistic IMO. I propose to read "The Sense of Style" by Pinker instead: https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/...

simplegeekonAug 16, 2019

Sorry, haven't yet read "The Elements of Style". On my list though, since I've heard great things about it. :)

invisiblerobotonMay 1, 2020

Well written.

Two excellent books are The Elements of Style and On Writing Well.

cschmidtonJuly 19, 2013

If you're going to read "The Elements of Style", you might as well get the "The Elements of Style Illustrated", with very pretty illustrations.


eruonSep 3, 2012

That would be the case, if "The Elements of Style" would be a good book.

Read your favourite authors (be it fiction like Jane Austen or non-fiction like the Economist). Pay attention. See what makes their styles tick.

diegoonSep 3, 2012

For those interested in the topic, there's a free version of the original edition of The Elements of Style for the Kindle.


[The latest edition is not free, but this is a good start]

RyanMcGrealonSep 29, 2009

The problem with The Elements of Style is that White flagrantly, persistently and delightfully violates his own rules. Given that his writing is unfailingly charming and enjoyable to read, I have to wonder about value of those rules.

shadowsun7onAug 6, 2013

Could you perhaps recommend some of these alternatives to The Elements of Style? I'm rather curious to read them and see how they compare.

abecedariusonAug 8, 2016

Pinker's https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Style-Thinking-Persons-Writing/... is longer but still focused and very good.

The Elements of Style was fine for me as a first peek into the subject in junior high; it's just as a kind of bible that it's overrated.

001skyonSep 3, 2012

if "The Elements of Style" would be a good book...

--Awkward on many levels

smacktowardonSep 24, 2019

I'm surprised to see no mention of the classic style guide by William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style), here. Mostly because its best-known rule is Strunk's famous admonition: "Omit needless words."

noworriesnateonJune 24, 2020

Check out The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. He talks about how to write and stresses the importance of being concise.

shaneclevelandonJuly 24, 2017

A great suggestion. And I'll second King's own suggestion to read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Though, some of its advice might be a bit dated and best used in small doses. But to will provide a great foundation.

smacktowardonAug 28, 2018

For written communication, the classic textbook is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style), which contains one of the most famous bits of advice ever offered on how to write well: "omit needless words."

JulianRaphaelonFeb 12, 2021


"On Writing Well" by William Zissner

"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White

"Stein on Writing" by Sol Stein

"Self-editing for Fiction Writers" by Dave King

happy-go-luckyonDec 26, 2017

If anyone is interested, here's Strunk, William, Jr. 1918, The Elements of Style:


BalgaironApr 5, 2020

The Elements of Style would implode.


Though not the best book on writing in English, not by a long shot, it is a fantastic intro/solution to the question of 'How do I write better?'.

mcguireonMay 27, 2017

The Elements of Style is contentious. Many of its prescriptions are linguistically sketchy. On the other hand, it points out many things that many people do badly.

E.B. White, the 'editor', was one of the best essayists around, but he didn't particularly obey the rules in his own book.

ams6110onApr 4, 2012

Nobody's mentioned The Elements of Style, a great little handbook on how to write clearly.

stevewilhelmonNov 25, 2012

Macro advise: read a lot of material similar to what you hope to write. Write a lot, you only get better with practice. Collaborate with a good editor.

Books: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Shertzer's The Elements of Grammar, and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

clintjhillonJuly 24, 2011

I appreciate the small reference to "The Elements of Style" by Strunk. That book has helped me refine not only my writing but also my software design.

atsalolionNov 21, 2016

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is indispensable.


fabcommonMay 6, 2021

The writing that breaks down the busy writing samples here is quite busy. For good writing tips I always refer to the Elements of Style (1918). A succinct handbook on writing succinctly. Still relevant 100 years later.

tedmistononDec 14, 2012

A worthwhile idea. If you want a nice concise grammar & style reference, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is a classic.

searineonOct 19, 2015

That was the most pretentious review I've ever read.

Someone needs to beat this guy over the head with a copy of The Elements of Style, or at the very least confiscate his thesaurus.

ar-janonMay 28, 2015

It's a little sad to keep seeing such approving references to Strunk & White's Elements of Style. To see why, read Pullum's The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style.


gnuvinceonJune 17, 2014

Great job Steve! If you don't have them yet, get a copy of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" and Kernighan and Ritchie's "The C Programming Language". I'd love my Rust documentation to have the same level of conciseness and clarity.

samsolomononMar 2, 2015

I second On Writing Well. It's an absolute must read for anyone writing non-fiction.

There are two other books I'd throw up with it—Revising Prose by Richard Lanham and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Those three books together are a fantastic course in writing.

DarmanionJuly 6, 2010

This is largely from advice given in The Elements of Style. You are not alone in disliking it. http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/2549... is a good article attacking this and other bad advice given in that book.

davidajacksononMay 10, 2020

Read The Elements of Style. Then pick a few writers that enjoy and try to write something similar. Steinbeck, Hemingway... whatever you like best. It's like transcribing music; you'll learn as you go.

100konFeb 19, 2009

I saw the post on writing well (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=486574) and thought people might be interested in this e-book of The Elements of Style.

Some of the rules have changed over the last 90 years (I have the 3rd and 4th editions of this at home) but most of it is still quite relevant.

poma88onSep 9, 2020

Go for this book, it changed my life: "The Elements of Style was listed as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923 by Time in its 2011 list"

achompasonDec 6, 2010

I'll add "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Some people don't like it, but I love it's "reference book" nature. Open to any random page and learn something new, or check the table of contents when you're not sure about something.

2143onNov 27, 2020

Just get The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and read it cover to cover.

It's cheap, small (less than 70 pages.. don't remember exactly) and full of useful actionable tips.

iwangulenkoonApr 29, 2020

Study "The Elements of Style" (https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk-...), a classic on better writing. It will teach you about how to really write for the reader and not for yourself.

atmosxonMay 10, 2020

There are many lectures on the topic by Pinker. I would start there. You can find quite a few on YouTube. He also has a book, but haven’t read it yet, I bet is good though. It’s a modern version of “Elements
Of style
” which is the classic writers handbook for English.

BalgaironApr 13, 2015


A good companion piece. Really, if you want to know how to write, and barely have time to make breakfast, The Elements of Style is the book for you.

lukeHeueronJuly 11, 2016

Thank you for clarifying. I thought for a second it could have been a grammatical nitpick but discounted that since this thread is re: an Antirez post. I personally would be very sad if his writing style became more forced and began to feel like excerpts from The Elements of Style.

combatentropyonFeb 4, 2017

The Elements of Style --- well, parts of it. However, I mainly read it for pleasure.

gallerytungstenonDec 5, 2011

Using real words that made sense would vastly decrease the grandiloquent feeling of self-importance that puffs up these enemies of clear communication.

I sentence them all in absentia to ten readings of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White.

RannathonJune 5, 2017

Not really programming books, but these have helped me with programming jobs.

-How to make friends and influence people. Anyone who works collaboratively with people needs to be able to communicate effectively.

-The Elements of style. Writing understandable code is similar to any other type of writing.

jrainesonFeb 14, 2008

I consider this essay, "The Elements of Style", and "Simple and Direct" by Jacques Barzun to be the Holy Trinity of guidance on clear, straightforward writing.

GeneWilburnonJuly 22, 2016

The C Programming Language, Kernighan and Ritchie, for its simple elegance.

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White. On clear writing.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (series), Douglas Adams. So you don't take yourself too seriously.

j7akeonAug 3, 2019

To read more tips, read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White.


combatentropyonJune 15, 2016

- Taste. Read The Elements of Style and Paul Graham's http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html

- Watch All the President's Men and emulate the reporters Woodward and Bernstein. They hustle. That's what I miss among people I work with. If something is not explicitly assigned, cut-and-dried, and easy to follow, they give up. You may not be fired, but good luck making a real dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to say (another person to emulate! well, in some ways).

eruonSep 4, 2012

> Fair enough. I think "The Elements of Style" is aimed more toward people who must communicate effectively with the smallest number of words, where efficiently conveying information is the only priority.

See http://www.economist.com/styleguide/introduction, if you want to communicate succinctly. The Economist's style is just one possibility, but they do manage to write short and efficient pieces.

pikmaonApr 23, 2015

His past C++ projects (or lack thereof) do not tell much about the quality of his books. He teaches people how to master C++, and that's a very precise skill. He doesn't claim to teach how to organize software, or how to manage collaboration between people, or any of the other skills that are necessary for a successful software project.

It's the same way that good grammar is only one of the skills involved in writing a great novel. Some scholars really grok grammar, and are excellent at teaching it, yet they haven't written great novels. I'm thinking of William Strunk Jr (of "The Elements of Style" fame), for example.

EliezeronDec 23, 2008

"Omit needless words!" -- Strunk

Read The Elements of Style to find out how novel writing works. Using fewer words is just as much a part of writing as using less code is part of programming.

CurmudgelonJune 9, 2014

> It's quite disturbing to see this language in a guide that is all about grammar, writing, and the importance of being well-understood.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is hated by grammarians for the same reason.

davidbruantonSep 24, 2013

I'm one of the "MDN maintainer", volunteering my own time.
It seems like you have quite a lot of good ideas to improve MDN :-)

"To MDN maintainers: Please read some "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White and some "Don't make me think" by Steve Krug, and improve MDN. You guys could have done better."

Over the years, I have noticed that lots of people have good ideas about MDN, but no one seems to care sharing them in a Mozilla channel or better, contribute to MDN! It's a wiki! Something is wrong or inappropriate? Go fix it!
(appropriate channel: https://lists.mozilla.org/listinfo/dev-mdc )

It's also been over a year now that Mozilla is building the wiki behing MDN. It's an open source project called Kuma
Check it out and contribute. I have not read the 2 books you're refering to. If you have, go share your ideas!

combatentropyonSep 10, 2016

Completely agree. However I first read the Elements of Style. In 2 days of reading Strunk & White I unlearned 3 years of high school English. Later I read Zinsser and found him to be saying the same things. But a lot of people say that Zinsser's take is easier to read.

chowellsonMar 21, 2021

> There are very few people that take stuff like "The Elements of Style" seriously.

That's because it's garbage. Learning to write is great. But that is best done by reading good writing and practicing. A list of rules that constantly violates its own advice because obeying it would make the text hard to read is not of any value.


chasingonJune 8, 2016

As an aside: I do not like the idea behind the Hemingway app. Editing prose is not the same as debugging code. Removing adverbs will not make you a good writer. And the whole idea of having some bot making automated comments on my text as I write it sounds distracting at best.

If you want to write better, write more. And let people read your writing. Hear what they have to say. Style handbooks like "Writing with Style" or "The Elements of Style" are great, but you should attempt to understand the reasons they behind their recommendations, not just use them as a mindless checklist.

Craft your own voice.

IndrekRonJune 5, 2017

"The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White. Not exactly a standard programming book. Not really language-agnostic either -- quite English-centric.

I here assume your source code will be read by others; or by yourself after more than three months has passed.

combatentropyonFeb 10, 2017

His advice has nothing to do with page count. I imagine that he would think Anna Karenina a work of genius. The book he recommends at the end, The Elements of Style, goes into more detail about exactly how to prune. Here's one of its popular quotes:

"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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Of course that just is an introduction. The books goes on with many guidelines and lots of examples that really made it sink in for me.

combatentropyonSep 5, 2018

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis

The Mac Is Not a Typewriter by Robin Williams

Getting Real by 37 Signals

didsomeonesayonMar 7, 2014

Check "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. It is a classic book on writing style. It's short, inexpensive and very instructive.

Disclaimer: English is not my native language.

jeffwassonJuly 17, 2017

For those that may not click on title alone, this essay is by E. B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and coauthor of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.

anigbrowlonDec 16, 2017

I don't really want to write a grammar essay, but when you have two verbs in a sentence (orbiting, found) you should avoid splitting the dependent clauses (orbiting a distant start, found with AI help). Otherwise confusion may arise over which dependent clause belongs to which verb.

Sentences are clearest when written in the active rather than passive voice, and this is especially true in headlines. 'Scientists use AI to find new planet' is far better than 'A planet is found with help from AI'.

The Elements of Style is by far the best good to good clear writing in the English language.

sceleratonDec 30, 2014

Every programmer should read Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.

Its emphasis on clarity and concision translates directly to code, both in terms of algorithmic efficiency and human readability, comprehension, maintainability, etc.

SwellJoeonAug 7, 2016

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I've given it to just about everyone I've known who seriously wanted to be a writer, journalist, etc. as well as some folks who just wanted to write better. It's a small, beautiful, book about writing better. This is the book I've gifted the most.

Several scifi books have also been gifted to friends, mostly Asimov (both the Foundation and Robots series), Herbert's Dune, and Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama.

Also, gifted a copy of Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which is my favorite book about my favorite bands (and the American punk scene of the early 80s). The recipient was too young to remember the scene from that era, but was open to understanding why "punk" isn't so much a style of music, but an ethos.

Every book I've gifted is because I really love the book, and really like the person I'm giving it to.

aetonJuly 19, 2013

I would add "The Elements of Style" by Strunk. I think it is a classic in that area.

Edit: Also "On Writing Well" by Zinsser, another classic.

divbzeroonAug 25, 2020

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White offers similar advice: “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.”


munchbunnyonOct 19, 2020

You had a really excellent writing professor. He completely anchored the fundamentals that you needed. Now you can actually proceed to actually write.

Not going to speak for my own writing, but I completely agree with your point. The better you understand the fundamentals of composition, the better you understand what makes good writing good, how to hone your own style, and how to tailor your writing to the situation.

I think of The Elements of Style as one of those attempts to break writing (in English) down into its mechanical elements. Whether or not I agree with its advice, I respect the approach it tries to take.

tadmilbournonOct 31, 2013

I try to read this once a year to jolt myself out of my typical writing. Another useful tip is to have "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White nearby.

combatentropyonJuly 22, 2016

1. The Bible. It encourages me to live in a way that's also good for others, especially when I'm feeling selfish and cynical, and it teaches me how to interact with them in a healthy way (e.g. the book of Proverbs).

2. The Elements of Style. I always enjoyed writing, but at first school taught me to write in a flowery, longwinded way. This was the book that cracked the code for me to good writing. It dispelled a lot of self-serving and ultimately self-defeating habits and paved the way to clean, helpful English. When I finally got into programming in my late twenties, I found that many of the same principles make good code.

3. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. This is like the Elements of Style but for graphs. Again, it encouraged me to cut through the hype and deliver the content as clearly and succinctly as possible --- to serve the reader, not stroke my ego.

qodeninjaonOct 30, 2014

There are the people who make technology, and then there are those who write about it. I've rarely seen both in one person, as each side requires a level of focus and dedication that would do the other side an injustice.

HN in my perspective, is mostly a PR site for technologists trying to push their brand/personality with some bigger agenda.

I've seen a lot of people develop their brand/persona on HN and blogs before trying to push out some tech company. 3 such people come to mind.

To be fair, I'm probably no different, except that I dont post here (yet) -- just consume and opinionate.

So consider the context.

If you really want to be good at writing the best way is to practice. A blog is a great way to get in the habit of writing.

I would also refer you to some well known books like the de facto standard for "good" English composition used by PR's and news organizations: The Elements of Style (http://goo.gl/SPcAOF <== amazon link with my referrer tag)

Like anything they key to becoming "good" is time, focus and dedication -- obviously.

In any case, consider the context of HN and what the motivating factor is for people who do submit posts here -- they write well because they have an agenda and are using language as a tool to advance their agenda -- me too!

(side note: I'm still trying to figure out what the motivating factor is for Redditors though, if anyone knows, please let me know.)

(side note 2: I'm really surprised that in the book mentions, no one mentioned Elements of Style - it really is a big deal. Ask any Literature/English professor. I just re-ordered it myself for nostalgia sake and I'm always catching myself trying to remember the rules from it)

combatentropyonJan 3, 2020

I've studied writing all my life, and most of the classics on writing would agree with you, such as The Elements of Style and On Writing Well. William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well and a newspaper editor, talks about this very thing, saying that articles are often improved by cutting the first three paragraphs.

valbacaonMay 31, 2019

I've taken the class within Amazon.

Honestly there isn't anything that you couldn't get by simply reading and applying the advice from
"The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White[1] and "On Writing Well" by Zinsser [2].

The primary philosophy is that if you can't write well, then you haven't thought it through. The act of writing is an act of reasoning.

0. Practice in a strong feedback loop. This applies for anything, not just writing.

1. Ruthlessly reduce your sentences. Repeat until you can't eliminate or combine any more words.

2. Avoid adverbs. Use "dashed" or "sprinted" instead of "ran quickly". Learn more words.

3. Avoid weasel words like "should" "could" "might". Take a stance and give concrete reasons.

4. Use concrete data over descriptors. "+5% profit" over "increased profit".

5. Write in active voice. Look up the "by Zombies" trick.

6. Use the simplest word that maintains your meaning. No one needs to use the word "utilize".

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/...

[2]: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction...

lutusponSep 3, 2012

Fair enough. I think "The Elements of Style" is aimed more toward people who must communicate effectively with the smallest number of words, where efficiently conveying information is the only priority.

Obviously someone writing creatively is free to ignore these journalism guidelines. On the other hand, many well-known writers first learned their craft at newspapers where the principles of Strunk & White (or its predecessors) were fully accepted -- Samuel Clemens and Ernest Hemingway to name just two.

lgessleronFeb 9, 2017

It's regrettable that he ends with praise for Strunk and White. There probably is such a thing as "good writing", but The Elements of Style does little to direct us to it. Its advice is largely specious. See what Pullum has to say about it: http://www.chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/...

catlover99onMay 31, 2015

This is a good rough draft but it lacks a lot of basic background information. It reminds me of trying to teach programming by only providing a collection of code snippets, these are useful but they won't replace true guidance and they can become a dangerous learning crutch. Don't forget who your audience is (or who you're attracting with a title like Web Hacking 101) and remember that when you write you should be focusing on making it as easy to read and understand as easy as possible for them. Explain the whys behind taking certain steps such as why you should be google searching for sql errors (saves you time, it's easy, google cache pages can show details about errors that are not longer visible on the live site, and most importantly what sql is and the implications of an error).

While it's not about technical writing I think Kurt Vonnegut's advice will help you to make a better write up. Specifically #7. -- Pitty the Readers[0]

Vonnegut mentions The Elements of Style[1] which you'll find useful if you're struggling to give detailed explanations

[0] http://peterstekel.com/PDF-HTML/Kurt%20Vonnegut%20advice%20t...

[1] http://faculty.washington.edu/heagerty/Courses/b572/public/S...

batistaonAug 20, 2012

>I don't know where on earth he got "By definition an idiom is something you remove from good clean writing," which is obviously not true

Maybe from all those classic books on writing, like the "Chicago Manual of Style", "On Writing Well" and "The Elements of Style", which all agree on the point.

Where you got this bizarro impression that idioms are NOT to be avoided in writing? Idioms are cliches, and they needlessly obfuscate a text.

munchbunnyonJuly 31, 2012

Try "The Elements of Style." Classic book on writing well.

kashyapconDec 7, 2019

I've read the article in full. It raises an important point, but it's indeed a laborious read. As I read it, the haunting paragraph from The Elements of Style came to mind:

"Omit needless words. 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."

           - - -

If you enjoy the essay form, I highly recommend the "Essays of E.B. White" (yes, the same White of The Elements of Style). Some of the essays stay with you for a long time.


eroppleonMar 26, 2018

"Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules." - Strunk, The Elements of Style

Your advice is unfortunately common but misguided. Without a firm and intuitive grasp of "rules" and why they exist, one cannot build a framework for making decisions with which one can use their judgment. On top of that, most programmers aren't advanced enough to have more reliable judgment than "the rules" and few working groups can possibly survive a bunch of programmers "using their judgment" all over a nontrivial codebase even when those programmers are that advanced.

powersnailonAug 16, 2019

Having read both, I think _The Sense of Style_ is a very different kind of book from _The Elements of Style_. The latter is more of a collection of rules and recommendations. It is very concise, to the point, and without much argument. It simply describes what constitutes readable writing.

_The Sense of Style_ has a lot more why and how. The author showed the reasons that he recommend certain ways of writing, sometimes referencing studies in linguistics and cognitive science. The rules it contains are not as rigid as _The Elements of Style_; many of the style guides are really just something to keep in mind. Reading _The Sense of Style_ was like peeking into the thought process of the author.

mnortononMay 31, 2019

I have kept around and distributed multiple copies of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, for the past few years (lots of revisions of this out there, 4th might be most recent iirc). It's like a 9$ book and the guidance is priceless.


combatentropyonJune 1, 2016

The examples in this tool can be misleading, especially if you haven't read the classics like _The Elements of Style_ and _On Writing Well_. Ridding your writing of fluff is central to their teaching, but not at the expense of detail.

"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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

--- William Strunk Jr., _The Elements of Style_

Instead of quoting them at length, I will let you read them when you have time. The Elements of Style is less than 100 pages, and most of On Writing Well is tied up in the first four chapters.

StriverGuyonMar 5, 2018

I recommend getting three books and to begin writing at least 500 words per day distraction free (technical, fiction, stream of conscious):

1) On Writing Well - William Zinser https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonfict...

2) On Writing - Stephen King- https://www.amazon.com/Writing-10th-Anniversary-Memoir-Craft...

3) The Elements of Style - Strunk & White - https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/...

The two most important points are concise style and active voice. Both of these habits are critical for SEs to write concise emails, specs and commit messages. You will even see improvement in more casual day to day interactions (via slack, SMS etc).

kafkaesqueonAug 6, 2013

Very true!

But to be honest, I'm thankful most of my English professors did not care for The Elements of Style, never recommended it, and instead recommended other style guides which were better suited to me and our times. :)

I loved Charlotte's Web, though. I first read it when I was 8, I believe, and it had quite an impact on me.

Thematically, quite different, but Dylan Thomas had the same, I like to call it deceptive 'straightforwardness' and 'simplicity'. Plus, his sincerity was refreshing. He stripped away all the pretentiousness that many symbolists/surrealists can be interpreted as having. When I read him I don't sense that same frivolous nature some academics have, including some stuff by EB White.

CuriouslyConOct 31, 2016

This article has some good information. Having worked hard to develop my writing process I suggest the following:

1. Writing poetry is good, but writing (and delivering) speeches is better. Nothing ferrets out difficult to follow, unnatural or confusing language better than getting up in front of a group and presenting it. Speeches also tend to be short-form, so they really force you to condense your ideas.

2. Writing is a multi-phase process, and each phase should be approached separately. Specifically:

2a.) The first step in good writing is to create a logical structure of your document - figure out what you want to talk about, then arrange the ideas you are going to cover into an ordered tree structure. Include questions you want to answer, any relevant research, and examples or analogies you want to cover. Personal opinions aside, Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction is actually a very good guide to logical document structure.

2b.) The next step is to convert this structured document tree into prose. For this step, I suggest getting a pen and lined paper and getting away from the computer. Have a printed copy of your document tree to reference, and try to flesh it out without worrying too much about style.

2c.) Finally, transcribe your handwritten prose onto your word processor of choice, and edit for style. The basic tenets from The Element of Style are good. Favor short, direct, positive, active sentences. Focus on descriptive verbs and nouns rather than loading up on adverbs and adjectives. Try to trim unnecessary words. Beyond that, try to inject metaphor into your writing as much as possible. If you use a metaphor, try to stick with the same one for the entire paragraph. Use wordplay such as rhymes and alliterations to make important sentences more memorable.

tankmanonFeb 26, 2010

Maybe you will be as surprised as I was to hear the name Stephen King mentioned in the context of writing advice, but 896 Amazon reviewers can't be wrong:

Stephen King - On Writing:


This is what Roger Ebert said about the book:

"A lot of people were outraged that he [King] was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery."


hackuseronOct 30, 2014

A few thoughts:

1) Your English seems fine! I see little difference between your writing and others' here.

2) The writing on Hacker News isn't especially good. I would aim much higher; study writing as a craft and skill (I'll add suggestions below). I even wonder if your post is a troll, flattering HN posters!

> I wonder how people get to express their ideas in such a clear and persuasive way, many times they seem to be very intelligent and informed.

3) I wouldn't assume that those appearances match reality. Unfortunately there is little relationship between writing persuasively and presenting accurate information, and between appearing informed and actually being informed. Throughout history, many misinformed or deceitful people have persuaded others to follow them into catastrophe.

4) Suggestions for studying writing:

* Write. There is no substitute. Set aside regular time every day to write essays, fiction, poetry -- anything expressive and carefully thought through.

* You must think clearly to write clearly. If you don't understand your thoughts well, how can you express them to others? Get your thoughts in order and understand your feelings before you write.

* Take classes in composition; online classes are fine. Also here are two short books I (and many others) highly recommend: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Style by Joseph Williams.

* As much as you can, read only the best; you will learn from what you read, so don't learn mediocrity. I mean great craftsmen of language such as Hemingway, Nabokov, or Martin Amis; there are many others and generally you can find them among the authors of what is considered great "literature".[1]

[1] I know some here will feel that's snobbish, but great skill with language is essentially a requirement of literature and not of other genres, which have their own strengths.

kashyapconAug 25, 2020

Although it is a marvelous little book, 'The Elements of Style' is quite lacking. Instead, I'd strongly echo the suggestion of the user 'icu' in this thread[1], where they mention 'Style: Towards Clarity and Grace' by Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb (there are several editions of this; but any earlier edition would do).

To quote from 'Towards Clarity and Grace' (it is alluding to what's lacking in 'The Elements'):


This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to "Omit Needless Words" or "Be clear." Telling me to "Be clear" is like telling me to "Hit the ball squarely." I know that. What I don't know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.

But I want to do more than just help you write clearly. I also want you to understand this matter to understand why some prose seems clear, other prose not, and why two readers might disagree about it; why a passive verb can be a better choice than an active verb; why so many truisms about style are either incomplete or wrong. More important, I want that understanding to consist not of anecdotal bits and pieces, but of a coherent system of principles more useful than "Write short sentences."


[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24268952

kansfaceonMay 19, 2015

The Elements of Style is both dated and largely self-contradictory. Vonnegut judged his own work by slightly different metrics:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

shadowfiendonMay 20, 2015

Here's some pretty strong thoughts on the matter: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/2549...

‘So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.’

Might be a decent guide for the utter beginner, but if you're trying to learn to write with style, rather than simply to write comprehensibly, it's more important to know all of the many, many times you can and probably should break the rules in The Elements of Style.

MrPowersonJune 10, 2020

Most of the other suggestions wouldn't work for me personally.

Reworking old documents is too boring. Reading The Elements of Style isn't going to happen.

Focus on writing stuff you like to write about. I like writing about Apache Spark so that's an easy topic for me to write blogs: https://mungingdata.com/

Write about what you're interested in. That'll help you level up for when you need to write about boring stuff.

pgonApr 12, 2009

To pull something like this off convincingly, you have to write better than E. B. White, which is pretty hard to do.

  The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous 
esteem in which it is held by American college graduates.

Ug. What a clinker. He sounds like Hector Dexter.

And he's not even saying what he means to. Undergrads like the book too; surely he's not deliberately excluding them?
He should have just written:

  The Elements of Style doesn't deserve its reputation.

WalterBrightonMay 31, 2020

"The Elements of Style", by Strunk & White. 92 pages.

For example, page 19: "Put statements in positive form."

Code is improved if booleans are put in positive form, such as replace:

    if (!featureIsDisabled()) ...


    if (hasFeature()) ...

You might laugh, but I see the first form all the time. Sometimes I go on a refactoring mission to remove as many negations, nots, and bangs from the code as possible.

mkyconApr 12, 2009

I credit the article for giving me cause to celebrate on this 16th, but all past its thirteenth word is trash. The Elements of Style is an elegant book that has improved both my writing and my programming. It will improve yours. It would improve Pullum's, if he ever bothers to read it.

The meat isn't in the titles but rather in the content, the examples, and the writing itself. "Do not inject _irrelevant_ opinion" makes a poor title. So too does "Be alert for those needless words that you're bound to write". The titles are just reminders. Don't read just the titles. Read the whole book.

The 4 sentences mentioned are not examples of passives. They are examples of "there is" and "could be X" expressions that should be converted into a forceful active voice. Read the book carefully.

Criticisms of teachers and universities are irrelevant. How often do students read their texts carefully? Yet the book is short and clear. Don't get a second-hand account - not from a teacher, not from a friend, not from me, and certainly not from [this ignorant pedant] Pullum. Read the book yourself.

The book is a wonderful reference, too. Buy or borrow it and read it. Read it three times.

lambdaonApr 23, 2015

> Some scholars really grok grammar, and are excellent at teaching it, yet they haven't written great novels. I'm thinking of William Strunk Jr (of "The Elements of Style" fame), for example.

Not sure that Strunk, or the successor Strunk and White, are good examples here; they didn't "really grok grammar", in fact, they were pretty bad at both understanding it and teaching it, and their advice consists of a lot of incorrect information and vague platitudes. E. B. White was actually a good writer, but much of his writing violates the prescriptions in The Elements of Style.

Geoff Pullum has a good rant on the subject, if you want more detail: https://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/254...

So, this is exactly why it's an interesting question to test if the suggestions in the "Effective C++" series are actually good suggestions, or are just someone expounding rules that sound good in theory but don't actually help in practice.

nondeveloperonNov 30, 2020

If you benefit from reading books I recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and Howe and On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

For blog writing I recommend making a practice of bookmarking posts you like and asking yourself why you like them or why they work. I will point out that blogs permit a flexibility of style and content that few writing forms have ever had. This is a double-edged sword, truly.

I’m going through a similar process so I definitely recognize the challenge you’re having. Good luck!

Edit: I just remembered bookmarking Paul Graham’s excellent “How to Write Usefully” the other day. It might be helpful to you: http://paulgraham.com/useful.html

xtiansimononMay 31, 2020

?? You mean this book-- "The Elements of Style is an American English writing style guide in numerous editions. The original was composed by William Strunk Jr. in 1918, and published by Harcourt in 1920..." [1]

Cool! 1920s book on English writing style inspiring your coding style.

My first reaction to the 'positive form' was to recall a conversation I had once with a retired programmer about flow control diagrams. They relayed how the normal form for these required, for example, the boolean nodes to exit True in one direction and False in another--but all similar nodes had to exit in the same direction.

I wondered if a paper-based design, once translated into code, might not include conditionals such as the example which seem awkward once the paper design is lost and forgotten.

Now I don't know which detail is more interesting--

How design methodology effects the comprehensibility of written code.

How I was inspired to apply natural language writing principles as programming best practices.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style

genjipressonApr 4, 2018

Silence, John Cage

Man Against Myth, Barrows Dunham

The Elements Of Style, Strunk & White (4th ed.)

Telling Writing, Macrorie

The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po

The Pocket Pema Chödrön

Why I Write, George Orwell

Others come and go from time to time, but those stay.

baobabaonOct 29, 2019

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. (4th edition) helped a lot. (Note: English is my second language.)

combatentropyonSep 5, 2018

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis

nkkavonNov 19, 2020

On the cheap side, books, but not all of them. My buys are "hit or miss", lately mostly hits.

I would recommend:

- The Elements of Style, aka, "the Little book". Made me a credible editor (and documentation writer at the time) almost at zero time.

- Zero to One: in-depth, honest, and non-conformist view of the tech startup landscape. "How Google Works" is a close second.

- The Embedded Systems Dictionary. Not in print but the second-hand paperback is worth it. Great refresher, written with a wit.

Another book I use is "The Developer's Guide to Debugging".

In general I like zero-bullshit or more politely, zero fat books. "The Elements of Style" is one. "The Developer's Guide to Debugging" is also very low in fat, war stories and other nonsense.

There are other books that I like that are less influential.

Aphorism: I don't believe in software books. Exceptions are well-researched reference volumes, e.g., "C: A Reference Manual, 5th edition". I believe in undisputed truths, not in one person's preference or experience over another's.

These days I mostly consult manuals and standard documents. Technical books will only give you that much; see them as a vehicle to learn how to learn. Exceptions are again reference handbooks, that will have to be exhaustive.

I don't believe in trainings, fast, slow or anything. Self-learner here, learned reading by myself around the age of 3 (shocking revelation: have you realized that you can only recall detailed memories only after you have learnt how to read?) Actually it was exactly the winter of 1980 (born 1977). I was a serviceable reader by the coming of sprint 1980 and could read subtitles as fast as the adult is assumed to by early 1981. Educated physicist but self-educated programmer.

anacletoonMay 27, 2017

I've read "On Writing Well". Then I discovered "The Elements of Style". On Writing Well opens your eyes to what bad writing is, "The Elements of Style" explains how to write clearly.

"The Elements of Style" belongs to that 1% of books that are truly able to change the way you think (and write).

I tried to apply what I learned in "The Element of Styles" and "On Writing Well" to my company blog: https://medium.com/plainflow/how-we-write-at-plainflow-7e994...

kafkaesqueonAug 6, 2013

I'll dig through my boxes to find the one I referred to the most. I have the image of the front cover in my head, but not the name. It was something pretty generic, though.

But I should clarify I went to school in Canada.

All of my style guides were from small publishers and many were written by my instructors/professors.

We/I did use some international ones from time to time (some profs had preferences). These were:

(1) MLA Style Manual or MLA Handbook

(2) AP Stylebook

(3) New York Times Manual of Style and Usage

(4) Chicago Manual of Style

Now that I'm in the United States, I use (4) at work. They have an online version of their entire book (first 30 days free): http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

But to get back to The Elements of Style, it would almost be easier to look at what S&W recommend and see how writers write today, as you're most likely to find the answer right there in front of you.

Elements of Style was written in 1918. There have been all sorts of stylistic suggestions since then, depending on your field. The reason why we used more than one style guide at school was because neither can be said to be definitive, exhaustive or the 'best'. Some provided better explanations as to why certain styles were preferred.

dansoonOct 30, 2014

My main profession has been a writer...and since joining HN, I've probably written 10x more words on these comment boards than for any other forum or published medium. I can't say that I'm actively trying to practice...but discussion here is (usually) so enjoyable that it's easy to get in the habit...just like playing recreational soccer for fun can often be a better way to get in shape than a dedicated running regimen.

If English and writing is not something you've been able to devote yourself to, I would recommend something in addition to frequent commenting: pick up a copy of "The Elements of Style" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style) and as you write comments on HN (or blog posts)...pick a rule in Elements of Style and focus on the technique mentioned. For example, rule 12, Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

e.g. "He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward" versus "He grinned as he pocketed the coin".

Look over your comment and revise it according to the technique. Rinse, repeat, etc.

Elements of Style is an old book, but I still find it to be great advice. I've thought about making such a book for programming in a high level language (I know such a book exists for C/C++)...because good style can really influence good function.

Also, assuming that you're using a throwaway profile for this comment, make a profile with your real name and identity. This has been discussed on HN before, but being accountable to your identity is a nice push to make you even more attentive to your quality of writing.

combatentropyonNov 8, 2016

I recommend the Elements of Style, 3rd ed. https://amzn.com/0205191584

(I flipped through the 4th edition, and the examples and stuff seemed overmodernized. It felt diluted.)

combatentropyonMay 12, 2020

Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. Any of his nonfiction works have a style of writing that I seldom find. He has a dedication to reason and a step-by-step approach.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White. I liked writing since I learned how to. I didn't find this book until I was 17, and it unlocked me to write in a way that better helped others.

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. I guess I like writing and language. Like C. S. Lewis, Steven Pinker has a way of writing about hard things that makes them easy to understand, even enjoyable. The subject matter is also news to most people, I think, who don't appreciate just how much that language is built in to the human mind from conception.

combatentropyonMar 16, 2020

I would say never use either. Strive to be plain. By plain, I mean both clear and unpretentious. This kind of writing doesn't have to sound informal.

This advice is not my own. It is ancient, and you could say it is the gist of books like The King's English by the brothers Fowler (1906), The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (1959), On Writing Well by William Zinsser (1976), and The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker (2014).

Bureaucratic language to me means wordiness, vagueness, and indirection. Conversational is often wordy too and likewise short on substance. But while bureaucratic sounds like it came from a robot, conversational puts the writer too much in the spotlight.

The reader comes to a piece of writing to learn something. The purpose of writing is to help the reader, as quickly and clearly as possible. The techniques in the books I mentioned, or on plainlanguage.gov, are meant to help you do just that.

steauengeglaseonFeb 6, 2017

K&R gets so much hell, but it's a good, raw back to basics text. It deserves a place on the shelf beside the ARRL Ham Radio License Manual, or Wheelock's Latin, or Lyman's Guide to Reloading, or The Joy of Cooking, or the Elements of Style. It's the programming book for Boy Scouts, a crude, but essential Swiss Army Knife --the great programming book for the post-Apocalypse.

Also all of these are open source submissions.

somethingtodayonJune 5, 2021

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style

combatentropyonMay 22, 2018

The Elements of Style, 3rd ed., by William Strunk and E. B. White

joonoroonOct 26, 2015

I've heard of this advice before [0] and I really think it's very useful advice. The goal isn't to make your writing literally spoken language and add every "um" and "ah" to your text, but to make it sound like someone might actually say that and that it sounds like natural speech. Like pg said, you wouldn't look at your friends weirdly for that. It's too easy to fall into the trap of trying to "decorate" your text with fancy words and language but as the example shows it feels artificial and alienates the reader. "Write like you talk."

[0] I think it was The Elements of Style, but you should go read that anyways because it's like K&R for English. There's a lot of examples of how the ear is much better at deciding which kind of language to use than you are.

lutusponSep 3, 2012

A quote from the article: "Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass."

When I worked as a NASA engineer on the Space Shuttle, I met a manager who was fond of the word "definitized" (where "defined" would have done as well) and he would use it whenever possible. In spite of my persistence, I never managed to wean him from this usage. It eventually came out that he believed smart people, important people, used smart, important words, by which he meant words longer and more obscure than their meaning required.

This was, of course, years before I heard a U.S. President insist that he was "misunderestimated." It was then that I realized the problem was getting worse.

This advice may seem out-of-date, but a classic style book named "The Elements of Style", popularly known as "Strunk & White", offers many useful writing rules. The rule I find most memorable and useful is "make every word count." What applies to a sentence, applies with equal justice to the sentence's words.

I see concision in writing as a sign of respect for your reader -- you don't plan to waste his time with obese verbiage.


mkempeonAug 8, 2015

"The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White.

"The biological basis of teleological concepts" by Harry Binswanger.

dansoonJune 7, 2015

Not that interesting. For people who are curious:


Here's an excerpt from that rambling, incomprehensible post:

> But, from our point of view here, all these people believing, like everyone around them, that sovereignty must be concentrated and tightly defined, that nobody should have influence over government who wasn’t officially part of government, and the rest of it would be neoreactionaries. Similarly, today, with the exception of a few points of economics, the ideas that almost everyone in communion with Harvard University believes are communist ideas, and would have been labelled as such even fifty years ago.

OK, not everyone can find the time to read "The Elements of Style" but then this comes up:

> Why was Adria Richards lying? Because that’s her job. As some guy wrote, “It’s a mistake to think these people have opinions. They have careers.” Her career was to go around technology events, and fuck them up in the name of women’s access. Why? Whatever is the point of that? The point of that is to create a line of control from political activists to industry. Because of Adria Richards, and the many like her before and since, everyone in the technology industry knows that they cannot afford to upset far-left activists. They only succeeded in this, though, because people like Alex Miller believed their lies—that these misdemeanours against political correctness, such as making similar jokes to those aired in Superbowl commercials, are responsible for a 5:1 male–female ratio or whatever in technology...

I literally can't make any sense of that, except it involves Adria Richards, and why the fuck is she even relevant to this? I'll admit, that previously submitted (and rightfully flagkilled) post was the first I had read about this Strangeloop thing, by merit of it somehow reaching #1 on HN...and after having read the current OP, I'm much more inclined to give benefit of the doubt to Curtis Yarvin. The previous submission did nothing except make me think that Yarvin was backed by rabid anti-SJWers.

combatentropyonAug 14, 2018

I agree. I've coded for more than a dozen years, and the most advanced math I ever had to use was modular arithmetic --- which is actually quite simple. I call it advanced because I went all the way through algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, and I never once had a lesson on the modulus. I learned it on the job out of desperation. As many of you know, it comes up a few times in certain programming problems. While I find pi intriguing and the 100 Prisoners Problem fun to ponder, I never was into math like some people, and I dread the day I have one of those kinds of interviews.

In fact my background is in English. I tripped into programming quite against my will and now love it, and I always thought that all those math nerds who think programming is most like math never really understood English Composition, because I see parallels all the time (the kind taught in The Elements of Style and On Writing Well, which are classics but actually unlike most writing books). Emma said, "To my surprise, CS wasn't different from math at all." To my surprise, CS wasn't different from English at all (again, English Composition, not English Literature).

By the way, I will say that Emma not only is a master of math but also English. Her article was very well written. As casual as it seems, its rhythms, word choice, and humor are masterful. It outstrips the attempts of most bloggers who try to be chummy and funny and who wind up just being annoying.

Actually what programming most reminds me of is organizing, sort of like cleaning my room, trying to fit suitcases in a trunk, or filing papers. Which items are most like each other? How can we fit them more closely together? What if we rotate this one or repackage that one into a different shape? I suppose then it is like architecture or engineering, although I've never formally studied either one.

svatonDec 14, 2018

Now that's new. All the objections I've heard so far, from Pullum and from you, were about the fact that the rules stated by Strunk & White are not rules of grammar and are often violated by good writers including the authors, etc. As I've said, that is a nonsensical objection that rests on a misunderstanding of what a style guide is.

But what you seem to be saying now is that if someone follows the recommendations of S&W (and in the way intended by a style guide, i.e. not blindly), their writing will amount to "bad style". Now we're actually discussing style (matters of taste), not grammar -- that's great!

Of course tastes differ so this is fully to be expected, but I'm curious: do you have examples of why you think that what they recommend is bad style? If it helps, and so that we can discuss something concrete, the original 1918 The Elements of Style is available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37134 -- it takes less than an hour to read, and even less to skim. (At least its "I. INTRODUCTORY" is well worth reading, to set the book in context.)

My opinion: It is hard to define any writer's style, but overall, the style advocated by Strunk is one of clear ("plain"), concise, and "direct" language. Of course literary writing need not conform to this style, but in most cases it serves well. For most of the examples in the book, although it is easy to imagine situations where a sentence similar to the "before" case would be better than the suggested fix, overall it seems to me that in most cases the changes would be an improvement. (And in some cases the book itself points out contradictory rules explicitly, e.g. Rule 4 and Rule 14.) One only needs to look at the very last section of the book (Exercises 9 to 25) to see how such awkward writing is still very common today, especially in writing by students, and how Strunk's recommended style would improve things.

billybobonJuly 20, 2009

Clear thinking is neccessary for clear writing. For stylistic help, read "On Writing Well" or "The Elements of Style." The best advice in there is to simplify, which is the opposite strategy of the dreaded "business-speak" style.

It also helps to have some personality and humor. You get that by reading funny writers, laughing, and loosening up.

jaywhyonApr 5, 2011

I agree with the article that good writing is concise and clear, but don't conflate clear and concise with simplistic and short, thinking the only good sentence is a short sentence, as if we should all write like Hemingway in a hurry.

"Vigorous writing is concise...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."
- Strunk and White "The Elements of Style"

devilshaircutonSep 30, 2012

This isn't a citation but you might be interested in checking out The Language Log (a language blog, as you may have guessed). That would be a good (and incredibly interesting) place to start to see the countering view to prescriptivism. Personally, they sold me on the idea of "prescriptivist poppycock" years ago, particularly the flavor of it presented in The Elements of Style. I thoroughly loathe that book, mostly for reasons discussed on TLL. The "grammar" in that book haunts my prose to this day.

EDIT: Fixed a typo caused by me pecking out this reply on my iPhone.

yiyusonApr 29, 2020

Practice. Reading will always help you (with any language), and watching movies and tv will train your ear. If a totally immersive experience is not an option, I do not think there is much more you can do. It is normal that a foreign language does not feel like your mother tongue, you will probably keep improving but there will always be some difference.

If your goal is to improve your writing too, I cannot recommend enough "The elements of style" by Strunk and White.

Hnrobert42onAug 14, 2020

I am no expert, but a few things that helped me:

1. Read lots.

2. 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary by Norman Lewis. Some the words I have inly encountered once or twice in the intervening 25 years since I read it, but many others I hear every day.

3. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s like any other instruction manual. It’s worth reading, even if you don’t follow them.

hiphopyoonApr 14, 2014

Reminds me of my writing before I discovered The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

achairapartonJune 29, 2016

    ...in On Writing, Stephen King writes: "There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, its short; at eighty-five pages it's much shorter than this one.) I'll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is "Omit needless words." I will try to do that here".


combatentropyonFeb 18, 2017

  > Simple means getting rid of extra words.
> Don't write, "He was very happy" when you can write "He was happy."
> You think the word "very" adds something.
> It doesn't.
> Prune your sentences.

Yes, and this is corroberated by three of the classics on English composition: The King's English, The Elements of Style, and On Writing Well. Good writing comes down to inspecting every word of every sentence.

  > I rewrote it a dozen times.

And rewriting and rewriting. Writing is rewriting. Experienced professionals rewrite more than novices. I think some people think it's the other way around, that the more you write, the less you have to rewrite. I suppose it comes out better the first time, but I think writers who prize clarity and grace in their writing get addicted to pruning and rearranging and rewording. Again this is corroberated by On Writing Well. He pastes in a scan of one of his draft pages, with editor's marks all over it. It wasn't his first draft, it was his fourth or fifth draft.

Writing is a lot like programming in this regard. It takes refactoring.

lurielonDec 6, 2011

The Elements of Style by Strunk&White.

If it has to be a programming book, then The Unix Programming Environment by Rob Pike and Brian Kernighan.

HilbertSpaceonSep 3, 2010

My usual advice:

Start with three books:

(1) The most thorough book on English grammar you can find.

(2) A relatively complete dictionary of English.

(3) Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.


(1) Write, about nearly anything for nearly any purpose, and think about what you would like to do better.

(2) Read some relatively good writing and see if by example it provides some good answers the questions you had in (1).

Then rinse. Repeat. Many times.

My evidence is that good progress takes years: When I was a college prof I noticed that the much older evening students were much less good students except for term papers where they were MUCH better. Net, learning to write well takes time.

For some good writing, in math read Paul Halmos. In science, read a good freshman physics book. These examples are high among the best ever at communicating rock solid information with some of the greatest clarity yet achieved and are crown jewels of civilizations.

For persuasive writing, practice on, say, Reddit or other fora and see what reactions you get. Rinse. Repeat. Many times.

For writing for the humanities, mostly just learn about humans. For this purpose, my favorite Humans 101 for Dummies is the now classic E. Fromm, The Art of Loving.

Then for Beowulf and Chaucer through Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, and Henry James to the present and for the rest of this millennium in English literature, and its history, techniques, values, and goals, I would treat it as at best meaningless and otherwise as toxic waste of great danger to humans, this far into the 21st century still stuck before the 18th. Here I am straining as hard as I can to be astoundingly diplomatic and omit remarks about detritus of the ascent of man, effluent, and septic tank of civilization.

Actually in England in the 1600s there was a good writer, Newton.

herodotusonDec 31, 2019

I am surprised that someone who claims to have been an avid reader writes so poorly. Consider, for example,

"Fast-forward to the last year of school. I’ve started writing. It was nothing special really, short fictional stories there and there."

The author's tense is muddled, and I have no idea what "there and there" means. Better would be

"Fast-forward to my last year of school. I started writing. It was nothing special really, just some short stories."

There were a few instances where the author should have used "I" rather than "I've". In fact, I would encourage this author to avoid such contractions altogether.

The goal of writing at least one article a month is laudable, but this author should work on writing craft fundamentals. Perhaps a book like The Elements of Style would help. Even better would be a tutor or coach.

combatentropyonFeb 21, 2020

> My English teachers rewarded flowery, verbose writing.

Same here, and I suspect the same for most people: "due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature" --- http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html Toward the end of high school I found The Elements of Style by accident and it changed my life. Yes, it changed my life!

I was always more interested in art than science. So I didn't become a programmer until I was almost 30. What struck me was how similar it was to prose.

1. There are many ways to write a program

2. Your first draft of a program is usually bad, but you can steadily improve it by rewriting it over and over and over. This unglamourous technique is the secret behind good prose too, as Graham points out.

3. As you rewrite it, you find you can do the same thing in half the space.

4. The programs that are most pleasant to use are ones where the programmer first wrote it for himself. Likewise, as Graham said here, a good strategy for useful essays is to write it first for yourself.

andyidsingaonSep 30, 2014

A while back, a mentor of mine gently suggested i get a copy of "the elements of style" after reading a one of my poorly written tech docs explaining some code i had written. i got one, read a few pages, and then started using it as a coaster.

thing is, its a constant reminder and seems to have helped me more than any other book i haven't read. im still not a very good writer ...but better :)

going a little deeper into philosophy, the book "On Bullshit" should be another coaster on ones desk.

vonnikonJune 29, 2016

People mean different things when they say "writer," and it's worthwhile untangling a few different types.

* Writers who make a living writing

* Writers who don't (yet)

* Fiction writers: Novelists and short-story writers

* Poets

* Journalists: reporters, war correspondents, editors

* Bloggers

* Corporate: Technical writers, Marketing copy writers, etc.

* Academics all stripes

These categories aren't mutually exclusive, but they each represent a different type of writing, which itself requires a different practice, approach or method.

There are, in fact, many handbooks for being a writer, and almost all of them are written to serve a particular type of writer and not others.

The creative writing departments of America have produced piles of writing about writing (about writing -- gaah ... self-referential recursion! No one escapes a medium describing itself.).

Some of the classics are:

* The Elements of Style - Strunk and White

* Politics and the English Language - Orwell

* Hemingway on Writing

* Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style - Erasmus (the opposite of Strunk...)

* And so on...

The best handbook of all, though is simply the study of great writers whose work you love, as the author points out. Anyone serious about fiction or prose should dive into the 19th-century Russian and French novelists, Virginia Woolf, an annotated Shakespeare, etc. It's all there just waiting for us. In that sense, every piece of good writing is a handbook on writing.

(Fwiw, I made a living as a reporter and editor for about 10 years.)

jcronJan 26, 2011

"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.

karamazovonJune 9, 2020

Practice! Go back and rework older documents - it’s hard to edit something you just wrote. Time between writing and editing will give you perspective, and help you understand what to do better in the future.

Reading about writing will help too. “The Elements of Style” is great, as is Stephen King’s “On Writing” (for the latter, ignore the parts focused on fiction).

combatentropyonAug 2, 2016

If you want to be a friendly explanatory writer:

1. Adopt the inverted pyramid structure. This means to front-load your conclusion, to put the summary sentence first. In other words, if the reader stops reading at any point, they know the answer, at least in outline. Continued reading just results in more and more detail, more and more zoom-in.

2. Read The Elements of Style (100 pages) or On Writing Well (just need to read the first four chapters) or both. Both are short. These will help you word things efficiently. This doesn't mean you're leaving things out. But mysteriously human language is like computer languages in this: there are infinite ways to write something, and some ways are shorter than others --- shorter by several times!

andrewstuartonSep 2, 2010

Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White

f_allweinonJune 19, 2016

For writing, The Elements of Style by Strunk/ White is a classic I still found useful. Plus, as has been said, read a lot of good prose.

Similarly for public speaking, practice makes perfect. Check out Toastmasters International - a nonprofit that is running clubs all over the world where members can improve their public speaking skills in a supportive environment. Worked for me.


electromagneticonSep 29, 2009

The Elements of Style (which I personally dislike) isn't written for professional writers, it's written for non-professionals.

In today's culture people are barely capable of writing a sentence without losing half the vowels along the way, and god forbid you're American because you already lost half your U's before you were even born. Forget about adequate grammar, or even half-decent spelling.

White is a professional writers, and with everything there's one key thing to being talented and that's knowing when to break the rules. Breaking the rules when you know what you're doing can be amazing and produce awe-inspiring works, however breaking the rules because you're too ignorant to know they even exist certainly doesn't make you amazing and the only awe you'll inspire is stupidity.

The rules are very valuable, but any half-decent writer has already figured out the rules merely by reading.

inklesspenonSep 19, 2007

In fiction:

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart. Easily some of the best storytelling I've ever read. 1/3 comedy, 2/3 adventure, in an ancient China that never was. http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0345321383/

Homer's epics. I prefer the translation by W.H.D. Rouse, which you can find at http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0451527372/ and http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0451527364/

Heading even further back in time, I love this rendition of Gilgamesh: http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0618275649/ Even in 2000 BCE they thought the world was ancient.

Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder has one of the best treatments of post-singularity life (and what makes life in general worth living) that I've ever read: http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0765350785/

The Mythical Man-Month. A little dated (it's directed at mainframe developers and their managers) but still relevant.

The Elements of Style (Strunk and White). Learn to write clearly -- it's valuable no matter what you do.

Programming Erlang: Software for a Concurrent World. Easily the best programming text I've read in the last year, and it's sold me on Erlang.

cwbonJune 1, 2009

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style deserves a mention here in case anyone has missed it -- clear, concise, and practical writing advice.

1999 edition on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/d...

1918 edition online: http://www.bartleby.com/141/

For more hand-holding, On Writing Well by William Zinsser is worthwhile.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

oakenshieldonFeb 22, 2010

I disagree. I am a late-stage PhD candidate in CS, and I cannot stress the importance given to quality writing in academic circles. All of us know that clear, concise writing plays a large part in getting your paper accepted, and we're repeatedly told that if a reviewer did not understand something in a paper, the fault should be assumed to be with the writing. Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" is a permanent fixture on most grad student desks.

My point is: if you're reading a reputable CS paper published at a top conference, it is less likely to be hard to understand due to writing flaws than due to the complexity of subject matter. Journals are a different beast, but most good CS papers get published at conferences anyway.

mtlynchonAug 9, 2018

Thanks for reading!

>did you learn or research writing before blogging?

Just in school/college. I also took the free Stanford course "Writing in the Sciences," which I found very helpful for technical writing:


After working with my editor, I read The Elements of Style (aka "Strunk & White") and found it to be helpful at making my writing more concise and clear.

>how did you overcome bad writing patterns identified by your editor?

I started a checklist for repeated patterns. At the last stage of editing, I'd run through the checklist to check if I was repeating any anti-patterns.

Some of them became automatic after 2-3 more posts. With other mistakes, I don't notice I'm making them until I specifically do an editing pass for them. For example, I tend to overuse weak words like "very" or "really," and I often don't notice until I scan for them.

ryanckulponApr 27, 2019

thanks for the support and feedback.

one book i recall is The Elements of Style, often called Strunk & White: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style

otherwise i've not studied writing per se, just "practice" a lot in blog posts like this one.

my shtick is to add humor, remove qualifiers, stay conversational. all tips real writers would share too, but maybe not the same writers. ;)

elliusonMay 27, 2017

I hate to dump a laundry list of reading, but these all helped me tremendously:

1. Politics and the English Language (Orwell)
2. The Age of the Essay (Graham).
3. On Writing (Stephen King)
4. On Writing Well (Zinsser)
5. The Elements of Style (Strunk and White)
6. Essential English for Journalists, Editors, and Writers (Evans)

combatentropyonDec 8, 2017

1. Put yourself in the reader's shoes. Imagine getting your email in the midst of all the other emails they get, all the other things they're thinking about, all the other problems, in and out of work, that they might be dealing with.

2. Read The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White (< 100 pages).

3. Read the first several chapters of On Writing Well, by William Zinnser (< 100 pages).

(Don't like reading? Oh :)

euccastroonAug 22, 2007

Most programming books I'd recommend have been repeated a lot recently in news.yc, so I'll add a couple good ones on usability:

The (Psychology|Design) of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman (it comes under both titles; 'Psychology' is an older edition.)

Don't Make me Think, by Steve Krug

And a timeless one on writing:

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White

gargarplexonDec 27, 2016


I just wrote a book on breaking into freelance programming consulting (link in bio). I do 90% of my work remotely and often for countries outside USA.

My guess is the number one thing holding you back is your grammar and punctuation. Especially at startup firms, your irregular style is going to hold you back for two reasons.

1) The founders of startups tend to be supremely pedigreed and set a culture of grammatical excellence; you need good grammar to get into a top university.

2) HR and management professionals who screen resumes and may nothing about how to separate a good developer from a bad developer instead rely on false cues, like "is their spelling and grammar obviously correct" or rather, "is their spelling and grammar somewhat abnormal from the standard conventions of American English writing" – in which case they reject.

So the question is: how do you improve your grammar? Start by reading the book The Elements of Style. Its contents are largely available online for free.

AnimatsonOct 6, 2016

Summary: "just start typing. ... delete until the first sentence is suitable to begin the text."

That's a useful training aid, but shouldn't be necessary every time. After a few tries, starting an essay or post should be automatic. Writing a coherent essay is usually taught in high school. Strunk's classic "The Elements of Style" remains useful.

This problem afflicts some how-to videos. Starting with "Hi, how are you" in a one-way medium is pointless. How-to material should start with what you're going to do, go on to how to do it, and end with a recap of what you did.

Always engage brain before putting mouth in gear.

devindotcomonOct 19, 2020

Indeed they are, as is much of the Western canon. They are the products of a period and locale in which white supremacy was more or less unquestioned by a large proportion of the English-speaking population.

"The Elements of Style" is still useful and interesting, but its limitations and origins must be acknowledged. Among them is that it is a collection of usage patterns chiefly used by and intended for a specific class of English speakers. That class was not inclusive or representative of all the ways English is written or spoken, nor necessarily even of the "best." The book should be one source among many for those who hope to communicate clearly and concisely.

andyidsingaonSep 6, 2015

see also, the book, "On Bullshit" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Bullshit )

This book should have a spot on everyone's desk in hard copy. Use it as a coaster, walk around with it in the hallways, take it to meetings.
No need to preach from it though - its very presence will be enough of a sign to others re: your tolerance levels of the amount of bullshit stinking up the current situation.

EDIT: BTW, I do indeed have a copy of On Bullshit, but I use "The Elements Of Style" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style ) book in the exact same way as I suggested above for On Bullshit. I think they are two sides of the same coin :)

ams6110onDec 13, 2018

> doesn't even follow its own made-up rules

One must first know the rules, in order to break them.

Strunk & White, introduced to me by my sophomore year high school English teacher, is the reason I enjoy writing at all. Prior to that, writing was a chore that I loathed. The Elements of Style is one of the few things from high school that I still remember specifically and, 35 years later, still use. To me it is the K&R manual for writing.

UdikonApr 10, 2016

BTW, I had never heard of the "comma splice" rule before (but I'm not a native English speaker). It looks more like a stylistic rule than a grammar rule, and I can see nothing inherently wrong in using the form - the Wikipedia entry says it's considered acceptable or even compulsory in other languages. As a stylistic rule, it sounds like a particularly silly one, given that there are numerous examples of authors using comma splices in literature.

The Wikipedia entry mentions "The Elements of Style" by White and Strunk as one of the sources of the rule. The manual has been criticised by professional linguists, who noted that White and Strunk didn't even seem to understand what constitutes a passive voice (while discouraging their use). The manual also contains other silly prescriptions, like avoiding split infinitives.

svatonDec 13, 2018

Pullum (the author of the above) keeps criticizing Strunk's The Elements of Style (a style guide) for its rules not being rules of grammar, when the whole point of a style guide is to state opinions in cases where both alternatives are in fact grammatically correct, except that the author prefers one less. This activity of Pullum's is very strange, as he has written a book of grammar and is presumably capable of seeing that Strunk & White is not in the same category.

And in fact many of the claims Pullum makes about Strunk & White do not hold up to the slightest scrutiny: take for example the case of “however” (that you quoted in a reply below): Pullum says

> the grammatical claims Strunk makes are foolish assertions like that however in the sense "nevertheless" cannot be correctly used to begin a sentence…

but in fact the section in which Strunk mentions this starts with “Many of the words and expressions here listed are not so much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing” and if you look at the other examples it's abundantly clear that Strunk is not making grammatical claims as Pullum alleges.

Longer answer of mine here: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2909/what-s-purp...

ablealonJan 14, 2013

The original "Omit needless words" seems to have mutated in the wild:


'A reader of "The Elements of Style" once sent E. B. White a clipping of a book review that misquoted William Strunk as having advised writers to "Use less words!" White wrote back: "I often wish Strunk could come alive so that I might hear the gnashing of his teeth."'

worker767424onOct 19, 2020

My mind was slightly blown when I realized "Charlotte's Web" was halfway written (I guess he revised it and added a chapter) by the same guy as "The Elements of Style." There are incredibly few authors that you read multiple books from in a K-12 education, and I'd never put that one together because a style guide is so different from a children's book.

l33tfr4gg3ronSep 2, 2013

English is not my native language, although my entire schooling and upbringing were in English. One of the resources I found useful in improving the quality of the written word was "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk. The e-book can be found on Bartleby (http://www.bartleby.com/141/) or, if you so prefer, a dead tree version is available on Amazon.

seertaakonJune 19, 2009

> I was talking about your use of block-capitals

It was obviously colloquial language. But since you were being so prickly about it, I decided to repay you in kind.

> Look buddy, I've worked as a writer

Look, buddy, you're not going to see expressions like "all the time", save from direct spoken-word quotations, in any newspaper worth its salt.

> Commas are used however the writer sees fit and in the paragraph you take your third point from, they were elisions not clauses.

For the comma issue I refer you to "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr., page 8:

"3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas."

> I generally don't waste my time picking apart peoples sentences unless someone has offered to pay me for the service, perhaps you should consider doing the same.

Nor do I; I just do it when someone gets pedantic about "basic" grammar in what was obvously a colloquial expression and then proceeds to make numerous -- admittedly minor -- similar "basic" grammar mistakes. And I didn't appreciate the vindictiveness and severity vis a vis a very small abuse of all-caps.

msgonMay 13, 2011

Using the passive voice is not recommended by me. A book was read by me that contained the rule against it: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Also a passage in Stephen King's On Writing that makes the same point was read by me a bit later in my life.

In short, I do not recommend the passive voice. The Elements of Style has a rule against it, and I read the same point later in life in a passage from Stephen King's On Writing.

But you don't have to believe them. You can figure out why they recommend it for yourself.

ams6110onNov 25, 2012

Get a copy of The Elements of Style. It's like K&R for writing. Then practice. Join a local writing group. Write essays. Keep a journal. Write letters to the editor or guest columns for the local paper. Blog. Etc. Like anything else, the way to learn something is to do it.

Edit: also read a lot, and try to identify writing that resonates with you, and then work out why that is.

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