If the goal of the intellectual life is the passionate pursuit of truth, then a scholar’s writing ought to make the record of discovery as interesting as the journey itself.
Unfortunately, many scholars desire the image of intellectuality more than the furthering of knowledge, and the result is a sterile, stuffy style of writing that suppresses the excitement of discovering truth for oneself as well as the joy of commending that truth to others.
A writer who believes that ideas matter more than impressions ought to do everything in his or her power to make the communication of ideas clear, cohesive, and compelling. Though we should not bow to unwarranted pressure to “spice up” our academic writings, we should certainly seek to be clear and engaging as we make our arguments and further our proposals.
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) seeks “to show how a writer quickly and efficiently transforms a rough first draft into a version crafted for the reader” (x). Williams wants to see academic writing that is clear and elegant, where the style serves to enhance the presentation instead of distract from it. “Whatever else a well-educated person can do,” he writes, “that person should be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that” (2).
In this post, I want to draw out four especially helpful pieces of advice found in Williams’ book.
1. Diagnose the Reasons We Fail to Write Clearly and Gracefully.
Williams begins his book on style by explaining the need for it: we write badly. He lists three reasons for bad writing.
- Too many people seek to impress others with a pretentious writing style. This desire is most prominent in academic circles, where a wooden, uninteresting style is sometimes assumed to be a sign of intellectual achievement. On the contrary, the inability to communicate difficult concepts in clear, concise language is usually a sign of intellectual weakness, not strength.
- Too many writers are fearful of making errors they learned about in middle school. They reduce good writing to error-free grammar, and because all their attention is on keeping the rules, they are unable to communicate gracefully and clearly.
- Many academics are in over their heads. They are writing about things they do not entirely understand. It is difficult to break down concepts into clear and concise language if the writer’s understanding is still foggy.
2. Master the Principles for Clear and Cohesive Writing.
When it comes to writing with clarity, Williams boils his advice down to two simple suggestions: “Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when (1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (2) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of” (21). In other words, avoid abstraction in favor of directness.
We can make our writing clearer and crisper by cutting out nominalizations that slow down the sentence. “The police conducted an investigation” is wordier than saying “The police investigated.”
Or “Our discussion concerned a tax cut” could be shortened to the more direct “We discussed a tax cut.” Nominalizations turn verbs into nouns, which bog down sentences with too many words (31).
Make sure it’s cohesive!
Clarity matters, but cohesion does too. A single sentence might be clear, but the meaning can still get muddled if it is trapped in a disjointed paragraph.
Williams recommends that the beginning of a sentence carry on the concepts the writer has already been discussing. In terms of emphasis, the end of the sentence should contain the most significant information – whatever the writer wants to expand on in the next sentence (48).
Clarity and cohesion go together: clarity results from good sentence structure, while cohesion results from a logical sequence of sentences (51). Williams writes:
“Topic strings and thematic strings constitute the conceptual architecture of a passage, the frame within which you develop new ideas. Topic strings focus your reader’s attention on what a passage is globally about. The thematic strings give your reader a sense that you are focusing on a core of ideas related to those topics” (85).
Cut, cut, cut!
One of the quickest and easiest ways to move toward clarity and grace in one’s writing style is to do liposuction on a rough draft. In other words, trim the fat. Better to be concise than wordy.
How can a writer become more concise? “Compress what you mean into the fewest words,” Williams says. “Don’t state what your reader can easily infer” (115).
Likewise, the writer should have eyes trained to spot redundancies. They come in pairs (“each and every,” “first and foremost”), modifiers (“future plans,” “end result”), and categories (“period of time,” “unusual in nature”) (116-18).
Concision is to be commended, but being concise is not the writer’s only goal. There are times when lengthy sentences are preferable. “It is not length alone, or number of clauses alone, that we ought to worry about, but rather long sentences without shape,” Williams writes (136). Shorter is usually better, but not always, which means we ought to refrain from holding too tightly to a principle that may sometimes need to be discarded. This discussion on rule-breaking leads us to another important word of advice from Williams.
3. Do Not Believe Everything You Learned in Grammar School.
Throughout this book, the reader senses Williams’ bewilderment at the fixation of some scholars and schoolteachers on certain grammatical preferences. Williams chastises teachers who turn helpful principles into unbending rules. Using a formula that resembles Jesus’ teaching on the Law (“You have heard it said… but I say…”), Williams exposes the myths many of us learned in grammar school.
The key to Williams’ thought process is flexibility. “All local principles must yield to higher principles,” he writes. “The real problem is to recognize these occasions when we should subordinate one principle to another” (64).
There is give-and-take between general principles in English writing. A skilled writer understands what principle works best in a given situation.
Here are some examples of going against what you may have learned in grammar school.
- Writers are often told to avoid the passive tense. But Williams believes that the passive tense can sometimes be more effective than the active tense. What he always opposes is passive writing that relies on abstract nouns and missing characters (23). Passive writing is more than the tense of the verb.
- Many teachers insist on always using third-person (40). But Williams believes combining third-person objectivity with passive verbs ensures an uninteresting experience for the reader.
- Writers are often encouraged to strive for “elegant variation” – the desire to use synonyms rather than repeat the same word. But according to Williams, repetition is to be preferred because using two words for one concept may confuse the reader into thinking the writer means two different concepts (87).
When in doubt regarding a rule in English, it is best to observe what good writers do, and then follow their example. “We must reject as folklore any rule that is regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose,” he writes (179). In light of this instruction, we can dispense with the notion that proper sentences never begin with a conjunction or end with a preposition.
We should also keep in mind that “a writer who observes every rule can still write wretched prose. And some of the most lucid, precise, and forceful prose is written by those for whom some of these rules have no standing whatsoever” (197).
4. Draw Attention to Your Ideas, Not Your Writing.
Williams wants writers to pay attention to style so that readers will not have to. Grammatical mechanics and stylistic principles exist for the communication of ideas, not for the admiration of the author’s skill.
Remember the reader!
Williams constantly reminds his readers to remember theirs. “You avoid monotony by saying what you have to say as clearly as you can,” he writes, “by so thoroughly engaging your readers in your ideas that they lose touch with the surface of your prose” (54).
Remembering the reader is the one rule that trumps all the general principles that Williams puts forth. For example, when he recommends that writers seek an economy of words, he submits the principle to a higher purpose: “The real measure of economy should be whether we have achieved our ends, whether our readers understand or do what we want them to” (59). Likewise, he encourages us to “underestimate a reader’s knowledge and make themes explicit” (85), to consider how our readers encounter our prose.
It would have been helpful for Williams to include a chapter on creativity in this book. He hints at the need for creative writing in his chapter on elegance when he discusses similes and metaphors (164), but a full chapter would have been useful. Even so, Style is a helpful treatment of common writing principles that should help writers improve their craft and communicate their ideas with clarity and grace.