Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

Principles and guidelines on how to write clearly. Write to think better; then think (and work through these principles) to write better.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Wiliams

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams is a guide to help writers to write with more clarity. The book has undergone several revisions by Joseph Bizup. Many of these principles are timeless and remain helpful to writers today.

This is an executive summary of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

Understanding Style

  • Principles: "It’s good to write clearly. Anyone can. Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style" (Matthew Arnold).
  • Style: "How we choose to arrange words to their best effect.”
  • Aim: "To explain how you can overcome unclear writing."
  • History of clear/unclear writing: Examples: Thomas Paine- "lean and direct;" Mark Twain- "easy, clear, concise, direct, emphatic;" James Cooper- "turgid" (inflated, overblown)
  • Causes of unclear writing:
    1. Chronic subjectivity: we only hear "what we had in mind.”
    2. Attempt to impress or intimidate: "we don’t know what we’re talking about" or “we use a complex style that only a few can understand.”
    3. Bad memories- we create awkward sentences through fear of making grammar and style mistakes.
    4. Stylistic confusion: "we struggle to master complex ideas"
  • Solution: "this book is not, in fact, about writing: It is about rewriting… You write to help yourself think better; then think to help yourself write better…"


  • Clarity and choice: "to choose not just what to write but how.”
  • Suggested reasons for rules: to "keep the underclasses" under control; to serve as a rite of passage, or discipline, to win a place as a well-educated person within the institutions of power; to encourage "efficiencies of expression"?
  • Three kinds of rules:
    1. Inviolable rules
    2. Optional rules
    3. Folklore (invented) rules
  • Three kinds of correctness:
    1. Most important: "define the fundamental structure of English"
    2. Next in importance: "distinguish standard speech from non-standard"
    3. Least important: "invented rules;" "trivia of usage" (e.g. beginning sentences with "and," "but," or "because")
  • Folklore refers to “rules” that are not rules at all.
    1. Don’t begin a sentence with and or but.
    2. Use the relative pronoun that, not which, for restrictive clauses.
    3. Not splitting infinitives: "to conceal slightly"
  • Options refer to rules that signal deliberate care in formal speech.
    1. Using "shall" for the first-person, simple future: "I shall end here"
    2. Using "whom" as the object of a verb or preposition, rather than "who:" "Whom am I writing for?"
    3. Not ending a sentence with a preposition: "She’s the one to whom I wrote."
    4. Using the subjunctive with contrary-to-fact statements: "If I weren’t so tired I would leave."
    5. Using a singular verb with "none" and "any": "None of them is here."
  • Words that attract special attention:
    • Aggravate
    • Anticipate
    • Anxious
    • Blackmail
    • Cohort/consort
    • Comprise/compose/consist/constitute
    • Continuous/continual
    • Disinterested
    • Enormity
    • Flaunt/flout
    • Fortuitous/fortunate
    • Fulsome
    • Notorious
  • Hobgoblins: Usages which attract special animosity
    1. Using "like" for "as/as if"
    2. Using "hopefully" as a general adverb
    3. Using "finalize" to mean "finish/complete"
    4. Using "irregardless" for "regardless"
    5. Using "impact" as a verb
    6. Modifying absolute adjectives like "perfect, unique, final, complete" with other adjectives like "very, more," etc.
  • Problems with pronouns: number and gender
    1. Gen. Rules for number: make verbs agree with subjects: "Our reasons are based on solid evidence;" make pronouns agree with antecedents: "No one wants to expose himself to danger;" Special Rules for number: when a noun is singular in grammar but plural in meaning, use a singular pronoun when the group acts as a single entity: "The staff has met but has not yet made its decision;" but use a plural pronoun when the members of the group act individually: "The staff have met, but not all of them are in agreement."
    2. Gen. Rules for gender: in casual usage use "they" for indefinite pronouns like someone, everyone, no one": "Everyone realizes why they must take responsibility for their own actions;" in more formal usage use a singular, generic pronoun: "Everyone realizes why he must take responsibility for his own actions;" Special Rule for gender: the plural they is increasingly becoming accepted as "an entirely correct singular": "No one should turn in their writing unedited."
  • Precision: making the rules serve the goal of clarity


Making judgments about writing

1. Words of praise: "clear, direct, concise, flowing, smooth, focused"
2. Words of criticism: "unclear, indirect, wordy, confusing, abstract, awkward, turgid, disjointed, complicated, obscure" 

Telling stories about characters and actions

1. Express the main characters as the subjects of verbs
2. Express their actions as verbs
3. Avoid abstract nouns, esp. "NOMINALIZATIONS," nouns created from verbs and adjectives like: "evaluation, indicative, movement, carelessness, difference, proficiency"
  • The Writer’s Golden Rule: "Write to others as you would have others write to you."

From diagnosis to analysis and revision

1. Diagnosis: look at the first 7–8 words of sentences for:
	- abstract nouns/nominalizations
	- a lack of verbs
	- less specific verbs 
2. Analysis: find your characters and their actions 
3. Revision: go back through your sentences and:
	- change nominalizations into verbs and adjectives
	- make your characters the subjects of those new verbs
	- rewrite the sentences with conjunctions like: "because, if, when, although, why, how, whether, that"
  • A common problem: Why you are your own worst editor: "as you reread your own writing, you usually don’t read it; you just remind yourself of what you intended to mean when you wrote it"
  • Useful nominalizations
    1. It refers to a previous sentence and creates a cohesive flow.
    2. It replaces an awkward: "the fact that"
    3. It names what would be the object of a verb
    4. It introduces a topic about to be developed
    5. It refers to a familiar concept which can be treated like a character


  • Abstractions as characters: in most stories the main characters are agents that perform actions directed toward a goal; abstract concepts can be treated "as if they were real characters by making them the subjects of verbs than feel like actions," e.g.: "Intention has a complex origin."

Two principles

1. Grammatical structure, the relation of subjects and verbs, is fixed
2. Literary structure, the relation of characters and actions, is variable

Style is best understood as a bringing of these two levels into harmony, i.e. "matching up characters to subjects and actions to verbs."

Use of the passive voice: three questions and one assertion:

1. Must your readers know who is responsible for the action?
2. Does the active or passive voice let you arrange words more smoothly?
3. Will active or passive verbs create the most consistent sequence of subjects? 
4. Although the passive allows the writer to avoid using personal, first-person pronouns, and seems to create a more objective point of view: "The ‘rule’ against using I or we in academic writing is folklore… The passive does not make the science objective; it only makes the sentences reporting it seem so… behind those sentences are flesh-and-blood…"

Cohesion & Coherence

  • Cohesion = "a sense of flow" (when the parts fit together smoothly)
    1. First principle: move from the old to the new
    2. Second principle: end with the new
    3. First things readers want to know = the topic (what it’s about)
  • Coherence = "a sense of focus" (when the unity of the whole is clear)
    1. First principle: quickly identify the "topics" (what it is about)
    2. Second principle: show how these topics are a "connected set"
    3. Begin sentences with something familiar to your readers


  • Clarity: "In the end is my beginning" (T.S. Eliot): "Reading a sentence is like jumping a ditch." Clarity involves helping the reader to make the jump. Place the more difficult and unfamiliar language at the end of the sentence.
  • Emphasis: The ends of sentences are the climactic parts. The "stress" or emphasis at the end should fall "on the words that deserve it."
  • Themes: "related sets of key concepts" that run through connected sentences; readers depend upon them for a sense of coherence. Repeat them as subjects, and again toward the end for stress

Concision (the first grace of style)

  • Definition: "concision" = "compression" (being brief and to the point)
    1. "I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil" (Truman Capote);
    2. "I spare both my reader’s time and my own, by couching my sense in as few words as I can" (John Wesley)
  • Principles of concision:
    1. Delete meaningless words ("kind of, actually, generally, certain," etc.);
    2. Delete doubled, redundant words ("full & complete, each & every," etc.);
    3. Delete what readers can infer (e.g. "to anticipate in advance");
    4. Replace a phrase with a word (e.g. "due to the fact that" = "since");
    5. Change negatives to positives ("not different"="similar;" "not many"="few")
  • Pruning Metadiscourse
    1. Metadiscourse = referring to the process of writing as it takes place:
      • the writer’s intention: "to sum up, candidly, I believe, therefore, however"
      • the reader’s response: "note that, consider now, as you see"
      • the structure of what is being written: "first, second, third"
    2. Prune unnecessary metadiscourse, e.g.: "In conclusion the last point which I would like to make in regard to…"
    3. The "Goldilocks Rule": "Not too much, not too little, but just right."

Shape (the second grace of style)

  • Definition: "shape" is the art of assembling complicated ideas as simply and clearly as possible
    1. "The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic" (John Stuart Mill)
    2. "Long sentences in a short composition are like large rooms in a little house" (William Shenstone)
  • Diagnosing two kinds of problems which undermine clarity in complexity
    1. "interruptions" are breaks in the flow of your writing, repeated stops and starts which cause a "lurch" from one idea to the next
    2. "sprawl" is a kind of writing which "drags on," taking too long to get to the point, and causing readers to run out of breath and lose their focus
    3. "dangling modifiers" confuse the subject of the sentence
  • Prescribing some antidotes for "interruptions" and "sprawl"
    1. Start sentences with their main subjects
    2. Get to the verb and its object quickly
    3. Reduce relative clauses to phrases by deleting who/that/which is/was, etc.
    4. Break subordinate clauses into their own sentences
    5. Use running modifiers (commas & repetition) to write long, clear sentences

Elegance (the third grace of style)

  • Definition: "elegance" is "a balance and symmetry among the parts of a sentence that echo each other in sound, rhythm, structure, and meaning;" the barrenness of brevity without elegance is illustrated: When Calvin Coolidge, asked by his wife what the preacher had preached on, replied "Sin," and, asked what the preacher had said, replied "He was against it."
  • Elements of elegance
    1. Creating balance through a "coordination" of parts within the whole (subjects, terms, sounds, objects, phrases, clauses, etc.), e.g.: "Unless by habit and necessity people have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained."
    2. Creating a "climactic emphasis" by placing "heavier" words at the end of sentences (i.e. adjectives, adverbs, nouns, nominalizations).
    3. Creating "a flash of unexpected truth" through the use of metaphor and simile.
    4. Guarding against overblown, unnecessary, and inflated language through simplicity. The principle of Occam’s Razor: "Less is more."

The Ethics of Prose

  • Definition: "A literary action is ethical when as its agent, we would in principle be willing to trade places with the person who is its object."
    1. ”Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” (Albert Einstein)
    2. "The most celebrated prose texts in American history are the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and his Second Inaugural" (p. 235).
  • Types of obscurity in writing:
    1. Intended obscurity: caused by deceit; attempting to deceive the reader
    2. Rationalized obscurity: caused by arrogance and/or laziness: "Whatever can be thought can be thought clearly; whatever can be written can be written clearly" (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
    3. Artful misdirection: caused by an attempt to avoid responsibility
  • An extended analysis: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural