A Contemporary Classic on Editing Nonfiction Prose

★ : Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (11th Edition) (Paperback) by Joseph Williams, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 8, 2013 (11 of 14 people found the following review helpful.) – See all my reviews


Years ago, I attended a weekend workshop for instructors of college composition that was led by Professor Joseph Williams, the author of STYLE, visiting from the University of Chicago and Professor Richard Lanham, author of Revising Prose , visiting from UCLA. They presented lucid and witty summaries of their books, Lanham focusing on revising at the sentence level and Williams on paragraphs. Although their books have gone through several editions since, the core concepts remain the same. Both self-teaching books are on my amazon Listmania’s list “Expository Writing: Top Ten Books.”

While teaching Advanced Editorial Workshop, a ten-week course, at the University of California, I regularly assigned the earlier editions of STYLE as the main textbook. Each term, students rated the book as excellent. (The prerequisite to the workshop was a review course, with the main textbook “The Harbrace College Handbook.” Although STYLE includes a 22-page appendix summarizing grammar and punctuation rules, most readers would be well-advised to reread a standard college handbook, such as Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers’s A Writer’s Reference with Exercises. See my review on Amazon.)

Even a brief browsing of Joseph Williams’s STYLE would persuade most readers that it makes the much touted Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” look, well, elementary. Simplistic. If the seductively slender “Elements” — easily read in a day, no exercises to do — could deliver the claim on its jacket, by the end of the day there’d be millions of excellent writers.

The 11th edition of STYLE has been ably co-authored by Joseph Bizup. Among the enhancements Bizup presents are reordering of two chapters so that the trajectory is from clarity to grace instead of from sentence- to document-level. He has added many new exercises “grouped under the heading `In Your Own Word,’ that invite writers to work with their own prose” (p v).
Part One, Style as Choice, focuses on different kinds of rules – – real, social, invented. Three of the many examples of invented rules presented are the usage distinctions between that/which; fewer/less; and who/whom. An invented rule says: “Use the relative pronoun `that’ — not `which’ — for restrictive clauses” (page 15). Williams traces the history of this invention and quotes several noted writers who disregard it. His discussion is included in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (See my review on amazon.)

Another invented rule says: “Use fewer with nouns you count, less with nouns you cannot.” Again many established writers disregard it. On the who/whom distinction, he favors “Who am writing for?” as used by William Zinsser in his widely read ON WRITING WELL “Purists would insist on “For whom am I writing?” as the invented rule “Use whom as the object of a verb or preposition.” An example of a real rule: “Use `who’ when it is the subject of verb in its clause; use `whom’ only when it is an object in its own clause.” Here’s an actual rule: use `who’ when it is the subject of a verb in its own clause; use `whom’ when it is an object in its own clause (p 18).

Each part concludes with a fairly detailed summary. For example, the Part One summary begins: “We must write correctly, but if in defining correctness we ignore the difference between fact and folklore, we risk overlooking what is really important – – the choices that make our writing dense and wordy or clear and concise” (p 25).

Part Two, Clarity, comprises chapters entitled Actions; Characters; Cohesion and Coherence; Emphasis. Summary opens: “A simple English sentence is more than the sum of its words; it is a system of systems. Readers have consistent preferences that you should try to meet: They want sentences to get to the subject of a main clause quickly… and they want sentences that get past the subject to a verb quickly” (p 94).

Part Three, Clarity of Form, includes chapters on Motivation and Global Coherence. The summary opens: “Plan your paragraphs, sections, and the whole on this model: Open each unit with a relatively short segment introducing it. End that segment with a sentence stating the point of that unit. Toward the end of that point sentence, use key themes that the rest of the unit develops” (p 124).

Part Four, Grace, comprises chapters on Concision; Shape; and Elegance. The chapter on Shape introduces resumptive, summative, and free modifiers. Clear examples explain these terms.
“Since mature writers often use resumptive modifiers to extend a line of thought, we need a word to name what I am about to do in this sentence, a sentence that I could have ended at that comma but have extended to show you to a relative clause attached to a noun” ( p153).

“To create a summative modifier, end a grammatically complete segment of a sentence with a comma, add a term that sums up the substance of the sentence so far, and continue with a restrictive relative clause beginning with that: `Economic changes have reduced Russian population growth to less than zero, a demographic event that will have serious social implications’ (p 154).

And, free modifiers: “Like the other modifiers, a free modifier can appear at the end of a clause, but instead of repeating a key word or summing up what went before, it comments on the subject of the closest verb. Free modifiers resemble resumptive and summative modifiers, letting you (i.e., the free modifier lets you) extend the line of a sentence while avoiding a train of ungainly phrases and clauses'” (p 155). In the preceding sentence, Williams simultaneously explains and exemplifies the concept of free modifiers.

Part Five, The Ethics of Style, takes on academics who “rationalize opacity,” with a “claim that their prose style must be difficult because their ideas are new, they are, as a matter of simple fact, more often wrong than right. The philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein said: `Whatever can be thought clearly can be thought clearly; whatever can be written can be written clearly.’ I’d add a nuance: and with just a bit more effort , more clearly still” usually be written more clearly, with just a little more effort” (p 195).
Well-crafted writing emerges only from repeated rewriting. This five-star text- and workbook teaches the exacting–and joyously rewarding–craft of rewriting. Moreover, I wholly agree with the author’s observation on writing clearly and cognitive psychology: “The more clearly we write, the more clearly we see and feel and think.”

In the 11th edition, co-author Joseph Bizup presents effective enhancements and wisely retains the features that made STYLE a contemporary classic on substantive editing of nonfiction prose.



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