The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., published in 1920, continues to serve modern audiences as a brief course for improved writing. The original book lacks exercises for practicing skills taught in the book, and that is remedied in The Elements of Style Workbook. But improvements go far beyond that.
The Elements of Style Workbook repeats the essential content of the original book (with some modifications) while adding exercises and answer keys. The original book presents content in two sections, one on usage, and the other on principles of composition. The Elements of Style Workbook adds a third section titled “The Secrets of Style” where there are extensive instruction and practice on analyzing and imitating well-known authors, writing with dialog, and learning to write with different styles depending upon the author’s purpose. This third section draws upon material from other resources that are in the public domain.
The Workbook omits a few topics from the original book that seem unnecessary such as the sections on commonly misspelled words and syllabication rules. Spell checkers and automated syllabication usually take care of those issues.
The entire Workbook is 213 pages in length. Only the first 22 pages address usage issues, and the next two sections on composition and style form the bulk of the book. Within all three sections of the book, space is included for students to write in the book, although some assignments might require more space, and students might want to write lengthier compositions on a computer rather than by hand.
Answer keys follow immediately after each exercise when answers are predictable, so the Workbook will work best for self-disciplined students who will resist the temptation to check the answer key before coming up with their own answers.
Excerpts from literary works by authors such as Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson, excerpts from other sources such as “Chief Joseph’s Surrender Speech” (1877), and an entire short story by Anton Chekov are used primarily in the third section of this book as models for imitation, as sources to be analyzed, or as resource material for exercises. The idea of imitation is used occasionally in other places within the Workbook. For example, following the lesson on dangling and misplaced modifiers in the first section, an exercise has students write their own sentences based upon models of properly constructed sentences such as, “Without a friend to counsel him, he found the temptation irresistible” (p.21).
The exercises are often more challenging than we find in high school English textbooks. For example, the sentence combining exercises present from two to seven ideas that are to be combined into a single sentence. Then students are asked to write six variations of that one sentence.
A common lesson layout in the third section is the presentation of a model, with brief instructions and a three-step exercise such as this one on page 156:
Step 1: Read the model closely. Copy the model on the lines provided. By simply rewriting the model, you will become more intimately familiar with the style of the author.
Step 2: To further evaluate the author’s style, write a few notes to help you remember the content of the passage. When you are finished, put away the original model. Using your notes, rewrite the passage, maintaining the author’s original style.
Step 3: Change the topic and create your own passage imitating the style of the original passage.
Later exercises have students rewrite models to practice changing the style of writing. One exercise has students rewrite a flowery passage from “The True Honor of Man” by Dr. Blair, changing the copious style to a precise style. A checklist on page 201 is frequently used by students to self-check their composition work.
This use of models and imitation reflects a classical approach to composition, and some techniques are similar to those used in IEW’s Teaching Writing Structure and Style.
The level of the language in both models and instructional information is often higher than what we find in typical high school courses. Students will occasionally encounter lines such as, “A noun in apposition may come between the antecedent and relative because in such a combination, no real ambiguity can arise” (p. 105). However, the attentive student should generally have no trouble understanding the information when read within its context.
The Elements of Style Workbook should be an excellent option as a year-long course for high school students to develop and polish their writing skills. While the original The Elements of Style book has been useful, adding exercises and extensively expanding work on composition skills makes the Workbook far more practical and productive.