Elementary Principles of Composition


1. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.


In most cases planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. Determine the basic structural shape of the essay and pursue that shape.


2. Make the paragraph the unit of composition


The paragraph is the essential unit of thought in writing. Although it may consist of a single sentence, it is usually a group of sentences that develop one main point or controlling idea.


The reader expects a paragraph to be coherent (with its organization following a definite plan), developed (with its sentences adequately explaining or qualifying the main point), and unified (with all its sentences relevant to the main point).


After the paragraph has been written, examine it to see whether division will improve it.


3. Use the active voice


The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.


My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

                        I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.


4. Put statements in positive form


Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colourless, hesitating, noncommittal language.


            He was not very often on time.

                        He usually came late.


5. Use definite, specific, concrete language


Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.


            A period of unfavourable weather set in.

                        It rained every day for a week.


6. Omit needless words


Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.


Many expressions in common use violate this principle.



*** An expression that is especially debilitating is �the fact that.�  It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.



Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous.


            His brother, who is a member of the same firm, �

                        His brother, a member of the same firm, �


            Trafalgar, which was Nelson�s last battle, �

                        Trafalgar, Nelson�s last battle, �


A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.


Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (51 words)

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words)


7. Avoid a succession of loose sentences


This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type: those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. The danger is that there may be too many of them.


An unskilled writer will sometimes construct a whole paragraph of sentences of this kind, using as connectives and, but, and less frequently, who, which, when, where, and while, these last in non-restrictive senses.


The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the Committee, and it is planned to give a similar series annually hereafter. The fourth concert will be given on Tuesday, May 10, when an equally attractive program will be presented.


Apart from its triteness and emptiness, the paragraph above is poor because of the structure of its sentences, with their mechanical symmetry and singsong.


8. Express coordinate ideas in similar form


This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.


Formerly science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed.

Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.


9. Keep related words together


The position of words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed. The writer must, therefore, bring together words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related.


You can call your mother in London and tell her all about George�s taking you out to dinner for just sixty cents.

For just sixty cents you can call your mother in London and tell her all about George�s taking you out for dinner.


10. In summaries, keep to one tense


If the summary is in the present tense, antecedent actions should be expressed by the perfect; if in the past, by the past perfect.


Chance prevents Friar John from delivering Friar Lawrence�s letter to Romeo. Meanwhile, owing to her father�s arbitrary change of the day set for her wedding. Juliet has been compelled to drink the potion on Tuesday night, with the result that Balthusar informs Romeo of her supposed death before Friar Lawrence learns of the non-delivery of the letter.


In the criticism or interpretation of literature, the writer should be careful to avoid dropping into summary.


11. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end


The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually at the end.


This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.

Because of its hardness, this steel is used principally for making razors.



Source:  William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979).




Reviser�s Checklist


Overall consideration


1.      Is every idea in the thesis stated clearly and given appropriate emphasis?

2.      Does the thesis statement indicate the structure of the essay?

3.      Does the sequence of paragraphs follow the order established in the thesis?

4.      Do any terms require definition? If so, where should be definition(s) be introduced?

5.      Do the body paragraphs prove the assertion of the thesis?

6.      Are the ideas in the introduction logically related to the thesis?

7.      Does the introduction attract the audience and prepare for the thesis?

8.      Is there sufficient information to develop specific ideas?

9.      Do the details, examples, and illustrations adequately support the ideas?

10.  Is the conclusion complete without being abrupt?

11.  Are all the statements logically sound?

12.  Is the tone consistent and appropriate for the audience?

13.  Is the diction appropriate for both the content and the thesis?




14.  Is every paragraph controlled by a topic sentence, either stated or implied?

15.  Does each paragraph explain and support its main idea? Are transitions within the paragraph clear and smooth?

16.  Does each paragraph have a beginning, a middle, and an end?

17.  Are the transitions between paragraphs adequate?




18.  Are the sentences varied in length? type? means of emphasis?

19.  Are any words overused?

20.  Are ideas within sentences given proper emphasis?

21.  Are sentences grammatically correct?


Punctuation, Spelling, Mechanics


22.  Are capitalization and abbreviations used correctly?

23.  Have words at the ends of lines been divided correctly?

24.  Are all the words spelled correctly?

25.  Are marks of punctuation used correctly and effectively?



Source:  John C. Hodges and Mary E. Whitten, Harbrace College Handbook for Canadian Writers, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986).