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Should Writers Follow a Style Cheat Sheet?

Biff Barnes

Should writers follow the rules? The website Galley Cat which covers the book publishing industry recently posed the question when it offered a link to a writer’s cheat sheet.

Courtesy of Remodelaholic

The Writing Tips, developed by novelist, gamer and technologist Mike Shea, include

  • Strunk and White’s Principles of Composition from The Elements of Style
  • Yale professor Edward Tufte’s Rules for Presentations
  • George Orwell’s Questions
  • Science fiction master Robert Heinlein’s Rules
  • Lists of Evil Passive Verbs and Evil Metaphors and Phrases

They are all condensed onto a single page which a writer can keep on his desk as a quick reference.

Should you?

I don’t think so. The sheet has some wonderful guidelines. If you adhered to them your writing would benefit. However, improving your writing style is not something you can accomplish by a quick peak at a checklist after typing a sentence. The principles listed by any of Mr. Shea’s luminaries are things you must internalize. They take practice. The rules must become a part of your writing routine. Making that happen takes time. It is not something you can add later like a step before copy editing. Rather than rules, these stylistic principles should be goals toward which you strive as a writer.

I do believe that having a style guide like The Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook for Writers, or  the Associated Press Stylebook is valuable. These reference guides focus on correctness. For example, flipping open the AP Stylebook to check on the capitalization of family names gives you a quick, clear rule.

Capitalize words denoting family relationships only when they precede the name of a person or when they stand unmodified as a substitute for a person’s name. I wrote to Grandfather Smith. I wrote Mother a letter. I wrote my mother a letter.

It’s a handy way to make sure your writing is correct. Advice like Strunk and White’s admonition to, “Use definite, specific and concrete language,” is a habit developed over time, not a quick fix.

What do you think? How might writers best employ the style principles on Mr. Shea’s sheet? Leave a comment below.