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Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

Memo to self: Maybe I should make my graduate students buy this?

Joseph Williams (1990), Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago: 0226899152).

Most books on how to write better English are pretty near to useless. Many of them scare you into worrying that you might use "which" when you should use "that" (never mind that an extra "which" never caused any reader the smallest bit of confusion). Others demand that you strive for "clarity" or "brevity" or "coherence"--but then somehow never provide any useful advice on just how, exactly, to do so.

Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is an exception. It is the only truly useful book on English prose style that I have ever found. Even Strunk and White cannot compete with the quality of the advice that Williams gives. Perhaps more important, the advice that Williams gives can be used. As Williams puts it, his aim is to go "beyond platitudes." Advice like "'Be clear' is like telling me to 'Hit the ball squarely.' I know that. What I don't know is how to do it." Williams tells us how to do it.

Williams's advice is particularly useful because it is reader based. Most books on style are rule-based: follow these rules and you will be a good writer. Williams recognizes that clear writing is writing that makes the reader feel clear about what he or she is reading. This difference in orientation makes Williams's advice much more profound: he has a theory of why the rules are what they are (and what to do when the rules conflict) that books that focus on rules alone lack.

His advice starts at the level of the sentence. Williams believes that readers find sentences easy to read and understand when the logic of the thought follows the logic of the sentence: the subjects of sentences should be the actors, and the verbs of the sentence should be the crucial actions. The beginning of a sentence should look back and connect the reader with the ideas that have been mentioned before. The end of the sentence should look forward, and is the place to put new ideas and new information.

His advice continues at the level of the paragraph. The sentences that make up a paragraph should have consistent topics. New topics and new themes should be found at the end of a paragraph's introductory sentence (or sentences). Readers will find a paragraph to be coherent if it has one single articulate summary sentence, which is almost always found either at the end of the paragraph or as the last of the paragraph's introductory sentences.

His advice concludes with four chapters on being concise, on figuring out the appropriate length, on being elegant, and on using constructions that do not jar the reader. I think that these last four chapters are less successful than the other chapters of the book. They contain much sound advice. But the argument of the book becomes more diffuse. The first six chapters present and illustrate overarching organizing principles for achieving clarity, coherence, and cohesion. The last four chapters present long lists of things to try to do. (However, the fangs-bared attack on "pop grammarians" found in the last chapter is fun to read.)

So, gentle reader, if you want to become a better writer of English, go buy and work through this book. I, at least, have never found a better.

A Sampling of Williams's Principles:

  • Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters.
  • Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.
  • Put at the beginning of a sentence those ideas that you have already mentioned, referred to, or implied, or concepts that you can reasonably assume your reader is already familiar with, and will readily recognize.
  • Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress--perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence.
  • When you introduce a technical term, design the sentence it appears in so that you can locate that term at the end, in its stress, never at the beginning, in its topic.
  • The topic of a sentence is its psychological subject--the idea we announce in the first frew words. A cohesive paragraph has consistent topic strings.
  • A cohesive paragraph has consistent thematic strings.
  • A cohesive paragraph introduces new topic and thematic strings in a predictable position: at the end of the sentence or sentences that introduce the paragraph.
  • A coherent paragraph will usually have a single sentence that clearly articulates its point.
  • A coherent paragraph will typically locate that point sentence in one of two places: as the last of the sentences that introduce the paragraph, or at the end of the paragraph.