Monday, July 17, 2006

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace

Joseph Williams's excellent handbook, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, rests on two principles: "it is good to write clearly, and anyone can." He seeks to address these questions:

  • What is it in a sentence that makes readers judge it as they do?
  • How can we diagnose our own prose to anticipate their judgments?
  • How can we revise a sentence so that readers will think better of it?

I've reproduced below the main principles found in the book. Of course, you'll have to get the book itself to see these explained and illustrated.

Ten Principles for Writing Clearly

1. Distinguish real grammatical rules from folklore.

2. Use subjects to name the characters in your story.

3. Use verbs to name their important actions.

4. Open your sentences with familiar units of information.

5. Begin sentences constituting a passage with consistent topic/subjects.

6. Get to the main verb quickly.
  • Avoid long introductory phrases and clauses.
  • Avoid long abstract subjects.
  • Avoid interrupting the subject-verb connection.
7. Push new, complex units of information to the end of the sentence.

8. Be concise:
  • Cut meaningless and repeated words and obvious implications.
  • Put the meaning of phrases into one or two words.
  • Prefer affirmative sentences to negative ones.
9. Control sprawl.
  • Don't tack more than one subordinate clause onto another.
  • Extend a sentence with resumptive, summative, and free modifiers.
  • Extend a sentence with coordinate structures after verbs.
10. Above all, write to others as you would have others write to you.

Ten Principles for Writing Coherently

1. In your introduction, motivate readers with a problem they care about.

2. Make your point clearly, usually at the end of that introduction.

3. In that point, introduce the important concepts in what follows.

4. Make everything that follows relevant to your point.

5. Make it clear where each part/section begins and ends.

6. Open each part/section with a short introductory segment.

7. Put the point of each part/section at the end of that opening segment.

8. Order parts in a way that makes clear and visible sense to your readers.

9. Begin sentences constituting a passage with consistent topic/subjects.

10. Create cohesive old-new links between sentences.