2002-12-08: Style

Style

Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (2000, 6th ed.)

by Joseph M. Williams (1933-2008)

Williams has evidently been at this business for many years. His objective, as stated in the Preface is to answer three questions:

  • What is it about a sentence that influences how readers judge its clarity?
  • How can we diagnose our own prose to anticipate their judgements?
  • How can we revise it so that readers will think better of it?

Williams doesn’t meddle in the writer’s first few drafts, assuming those are for the writer to figure out what he means to say. Rather, he intends to help the writer shape his sentences and paragraphs so that readers can learn what the writer has to say with minimum effort. The tenth chapter touches on the ethics of writing, addressing the reasons writers should care about the burdens they impose on readers.

In lessons four through seven, Williams introduces and elaborates a device to relate the components of a sentence, and to remind the writer of patterns to look for in diagnosing his writing:

Fixed

Topic

Stress

Variable

Short, simple, familiar

New, long, complex

Fixed

Subject

Verb

———

Variable

Character

Action

———

I found this small book more interesting, and probably more useful, than any other writing advice I have read. I may actually buy this book.

I haven’t seen earlier editions, but this one apparently has an increased emphasis on ethics.

Williams provides an appendix discussing effective punctuation, and a glossary defining the technical grammatical terms he uses to discuss sentences and their components.

Each of the four parts (Style as Choice, Clarity, Grace, Ethics) and each chapter has a nice set of quotations to reinforce the lessons. I have copied several of them into my “quotes” collection.

The inside front cover contains a one-page summary of the lessons:

Ten Keys to a Clear and Graceful Style

  1. The key to a thoughtful style: Write from the point of view of your readers; they probably know less than you do about what you are asking them to read, so you must be clearer than you think you have to be.
  2. The key to a correct style: Write not as the grammarians say you must, but as writers you admire actually do.
  3. The first key to a clear style: Put your important characters in subjects, and to the degree you can, make those subjects short, specific, and concrete.
  4. The second key to a clear style: Join those subjects to verbs that express specific actions.
  5. The keys to a cohesive and coherent style: Begin sentences with information familiar to your readers, end them with information that is new and unpredictable. In a series of several sentences, focus their subjects on a consistent set of concepts.
  6. The key to an emphatic style: End your sentences on your rhetorically most salient, most powerful, most grammatically heavy words.
  7. The key to a pointed style: Cut, cut again, then cut once more.
  8. The keys to a shapely style: Get to the verb in the main clause quickly by keeping introductory phrases and subjects short, by avoiding interrupting elements between the subject and verb. Extend the sentence not by tacking one subordinate clause on to another, but with running modifiers and coordinated constructions.
  9. The key to an elegant style: Write clearly, create balanced and parallel phrases and clauses after the subject; make those phrases and clauses echo one another’s sounds, structures, and ideas.
  10. The key to an ethical style: Write to others as you would have others write to you.

 

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