Lessons on confidence from Strunk and White [Stacy’s Book Note]

I didn’t expect to find lessons on confidence from Strunk and White when I thumbed-through my husband’s yellowed copy of The Elements of Style (available on Bookshop or Amazon*). 

You may not proclaim to be “a writer” but you probably write more than you think you do each day. And, without even realizing it, you could be undermining your own authority each time you write an email. I ended up reading Strunk and White cover-to-cover (so you don’t have to) and picked out key takeaways you can put to use right away.

Don’t belittle yourself

The first lesson on building confidence from Strunk and White comes from reminder #8 in the section entitled, “An Approach to Style”: Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty–these are the leeches that infest the fond of prose, suckling the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.”

Don’t you love their sarcasm?

Show your strength with your active voice.

The second lesson on confidence from Strunk and White comes from the Elementary Principle of Composition #14: Use the active voice.

The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing…. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

An example…

The reason he left college was that his health became impaired.

The authors suggest instead:

Failing health compelled him to leave college.

I learned that using the passive voice not only makes me sound tentative but even a bit defensive–as if needing to explain myself.

Qualifiers that chip away your authority

The third lesson on confidence from Strunk and White is Elementary Principle of Composition #15: Put statements in positive form. The authors suggest avoiding the use of “not”:

Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is.

The authors also caution writers to…

If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries, would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.

So, how might will you assert yourself when you write?

Learn more about Stacy’s Book Notes.

Sign up to receive a monthly digest of book notes via email.

*Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links” where I receive a small commission from any purchases at no cost to you. Some of these funds will be donated to organizations supporting women and girls.