At the height of World War II, poet Robert Graves and editor Alan Hodge published The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose (Macmillan, 1943). The book's title reflects the authors' belief that "whenever anyone sits down to write he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder."
Copiously illustrated with specimens of good and (mainly) bad writing, The Reader Over Your Shoulder is, by turns, maddening, enlightening, persnickety, and inspiring. Critic Denis Donoghue said that he didn't know of "any other book in which expository prose is read so seriously, carefully, helpfully."
Though the text is out of print (an abridged version came out in 1979), used copies can be found online. If you've outgrown your college handbook and the Elements of Style, you might consider investing in a copy.
To give you a taste of the authors' prescriptive approach and sometimes starchy style (minus their examples and sharp analyses), here are Graves and Hodge's 16 principles concerning the "graceful conveyance" of information.
A. Metaphors should not be mated in such a way as to confuse or distract the reader.
B. Metaphors should not be piled on top of one another.
C. Metaphors should not be in such close association with unmetaphorical language as to produce absurdity or confusion.
D. Characteristically poetical expressions should not be used in prose.
E. Except where the writer is being deliberately facetious, all phrases in a sentence, or sentences in a paragraph, should belong to the same vocabulary or level of language.
F. No reference should be unnecessarily obscure.
G. All ideas should be expressed concisely, but without discourteous abruptness.
H. The descriptive title of a person or thing should not be varied merely for the sake of elegance.
I. Sentences should not be so long that the reader loses his way in them.
J. No unnecessary strain should be put on the reader's memory.
K. The same word should not be so often used in the same sentence or paragraph that it becomes tedious.
L. Words which rhyme or form a jingle should not be allowed to come too close together.
M. Alliteration should be sparingly used.
N. The same word should not be used in different senses in the same passage, unless attention is called to the difference.
O. The rhetorical device of pretending to hesitate in a choice between two words or phrases is inappropriate to modern prose.
P. Even when the natural order of its words is modified for the sake of emphasis, a sentence must not read unnaturally.
Essays on English Prose Style:
- F.L. Lucas on Style: Ten Principles of Effective Writing
- "Fine Writing," by Logan Pearsall Smith
- "Murder Your Darlings": Quiller-Couch on Style
Image: Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, 2nd ed., revised and abridged by the authors (Vintage Books, 1979)