Style: Towards Clarity and Grace – Williams

15 years. That’s how long it’s taken to read Style: Towards Clarity and Grace by Williams and Colomb. Professor LB recommended it back in 2000. I picked up a copy at the University of Victoria bookstore (the sticker is still on the back). I read a few chapters. Then it went onto a sunny spot on the bookshelf. You can tell because the parts of the cover that were exposed have been bleached white by the sun. The cover was originally an attractive bright yellow colour.

Williams 'Style' Cover Illustration

Williams ‘Style’ Cover Illustration

Style Back Blurb

This acclaimed book is a master teacher’s tested program for turning clumsy prose into clear, powerful, effective writing. A logical, expert, easy-to-use plan for achieving excellence in expression, Style offers neither simplistic rules nor endless lists of dos and don’ts. Rather, Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb explain how to be concise, how to be focused, how to be organized.

Filled with realistic examples of good, bad, and better writing, and step-by-step strategies for crafting a sentence or organizing a paragraphs, Style does much more than teach mechanics: it helps anyone who must write clearly and persuasively transform even the roughest of drafts into a polished work of clarity, coherence, impact, and personality

Style Author Blurb

Joseph M. Williams and Gregory C. Colomb are sought-after communications consultants. Williams is Professor Emeritus in the University of Chicago’s Department of English Language and Literature and author of Origins of the English Language. Colomb is professor of English language and literature at the University of Virginia.

I never knew: Williams is Professor Emeritus with a capital ‘P’ whereas Colomb is only a small ‘p’ professor! That could be because ‘Professor Emeritus’ is a title whereas ‘professor’ is the name of an occupation like ‘plumber’. But poor Colomb: not only is he a small ‘p’ professor, he teaches English language and literature with small a small ‘l’ at Virginia whereas Williams is part of Chicago’s Department of English Language and Literature with a big ‘L’! Colomb seems to get short shrift, no? And besides co-authoring two chapters in Style, has Colomb published anything? He certainly doesn’t seem to have written an Origins of the English Language like how Williams has done!

Why It Took Fifteen Years to Read Style

Unlike Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (which is short) or Stephen King’s On Writing (which is fun to read), William’s Style is neither short (208 pages) nor fun to read. Will it make writers write better? Perhaps some. Will it make writers better readers. Yes. The numerous examples give a x-ray view into how other writers write well or poorly. The problem is that it’s hard to evaluate your own writing with the same set of eyes you’d evaluate others’ writings. Perhaps the reason why it’s taken me so long to read Style is because while it it undoubtedly helpful, it makes writing less enjoyable for me.

Part of the problem is that Style presupposes that the writer is already at quite an advanced level. For writers not already there, it’s a headache to take in all the tips. Mind you, they’re good tips. For example, avoid nominalizations (nouns derived from verbs):

The police conducted an inquiry into the matter.

Just use the verb by itself:

The police investigated the matter.

But nominalization is good for effect at the end of a passage:

…until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old (Churchill).

Williams’ Style reminds me of economics articles on Bloomberg or Marketwatch. Do you ever read the business section and notice how the articles are laid out? Well, it goes something like this. Let’s say they’re talking about interest rates (but it could be anything: employment numbers, GDP growth, bond yields, etc.,). The article will start off saying they’ll raise/lower interest rates. Then it will quote two specialists who will give their rationale. As they explain their thinking, then they will say their projection is based on x, y, and z. Then they have the hedge or the ‘get out’ clause: if x, y, and z are different than what the consensus is, then things will turn out opposite to their projection. To me, what they’re actually saying is that they have no idea of what’s going to happen. If they’re right, then they’re clever. If they’re wrong, well, they weren’t really wrong; it was just that variables x, y, and z did not play nice.

Well, Style is sort of like that. Williams will point out certain rules. He shows why his rules work with a bunch of examples. Then he takes a really famous and beautiful passage (a so-called purple passage) and rewrites it according to his rules. Invariably, his rules damage the beauty of the purple passage, making it seem pedestrian. So it’s like he tells you how he thinks you ought to write, but cautions you against writing like that. Sort of like the self-defeating economics articles in Bloomberg and Marketwatch.

But there is a certain honesty to that approach: rules are made to be broken. What I find is that after reading Style, I focus very carefully on how the words and sentences and paragraphs are put together. Did I use nominalizations? Did I put the new information towards the end? Did I get to the point quickly enough? How many subjects are there in the paragraph–is it too many? But to think about all this stuff…is hard. But perhaps that’s what a good style guide should do: push the writer to think more. The jury’s still out on this one.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m finding that to do Melpomene’s work with clarity and grace is easier said than done.

2 thoughts on “Style: Towards Clarity and Grace – Williams

  1. Kim Brebach

    Good going, Edwin. I got bogged down in this diatribe and lost interest in five minutes. It’s academic, as you’d expect. Yes, give me Strunk & White every time. Or King, or Sol Stein.

    1. Edwin Wong Post author

      Funny you should say that Kim, this book was recommended to me by my academic advisor back in university. King’s “On Writing” definitely rules! Are you writing fiction or non-fiction, book or article/short story?


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