Choosing Your All-Time Classic Guide to College-Level Writing

If you are a college student, or a college professor, you may have noticed the crowded field of classic guides offering aspiring writers a complete system for improving composition skills. Here at we happen to sell lots of these books every day so we thought we’d check in on which writing books have made an impact over time. We did some digging and as it turns out, there are also quite a few well-recommended editions that you should take notice of beyond just the very popular Strunk and White’s "Elements of Style".

While this book happens to sell eight times more than the average competing title at our store it still elicits a fair amount of criticism. One professor from a large state university who declined to be named finds that the popularity of the Style book, first published in 1923, is likely attributed to its historically low price and the constant eminence of the authors, Cornell Professor of English Strunk Jr. and his world famous essayist student, Mr. White. White is among top of the class in 20th century writers. Most of his books are still in print—even decades after first showing up. Couple that with its brevity and 10 Commandments-style approach to imparting principles and the reason for its continued popularity becomes clear.

Elements of Style helps students weed out many poor writing habits—habits they best learn earlier than later. However, it's not especially strong in organization; grasp of rhetorical principles; or understanding of the complicated situations that call for writing.

Enter Yale professor of English, William Zinsser, and his most thrilling contribution to writing pedagogy, "On Writing Well." First published in 1976, On Writing Well was written, he says, to complement Elements of Style so Strunk/White’s established “rules” were taken into real life scenarios. You could learn how to write, say, for business, science and the arts--all done in good humor. Rather than reading like a strict list of do's and don’ts, Zinsser’s style is more prosaic and, well fun. "On Writing Well" often has the reader contemplating the logic and practicality behind every rule, so in fact we see the act of writing as a mental transaction between author and audience. Zinsser’s wish is to bring humanity back to the word.

An essential little publication (and eminently readable), "On Writing Well" stands solidly on its own. Perhaps this breezy read will put you in the mind to peruse on a porch, sipping iced cold lemonade. The concepts and principles Zinsser brings to the service will tickle and delight, and you won’t feel like you just had a workout from a Drill Sergeant! Another book that sells perennially, and right behind Elements, is the inimitable "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by Joseph Williams, first produced in 1981 by a popular English professor at the University of Chicago and available in multiple editions and formats. It is a commercial success within academia; our database reveals that students are renting this book and not really buying it or even getting it as an e-book. At a mere 288 pages it remains concise and cheap yet is an academic book with an interactive, workbook-style approach to its “lessons”. In the vein of Zinsser, Williams’, style is quite engaging and begs the reader to think beyond the given rules.

This guide to the finer points of writing makes an excellent choice for the fledgling writer seeking a hands-on experience, more so than mere bulleted facts.

So whether student, professor, or someone who wants to learn to craft a better sentence, you could consider grabbing all three as a set: "Elements" as writing boot camp, "On Writing Well" as visual, responsible and audience-oriented; and "Style" as a manner in which to hone and polish your craft until the basics of composition become second nature.

Go ahead. We can get more.

Mark Carson, a veteran of the educational publishing industry, is the Vice President of Customer Experience at, a major online retailer dedicated to providing the easiest, fastest and cheapest way for college students to rent, buy, or sell textbooks.