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Clarity, grace, and humor

How a book about the elements of writing is really funny

My college freshman introductory writing class was the last time I formally studied the elements of good writing. I don’t remember much about the course, except that it was required and boring. We wrote a lot of essays, got some instructor feedback, and maybe read a “classic” informational text on writing like Elements of Style. The class taught to the lowest common denominator, in the same style as my high school English courses, where we would be assigned tedious five-paragraph essays to mechanically produce. Since I’ve always been an avid reader and halfway decent at writing intuitively, I didn’t learn anything new that I hadn’t subconsciously absorbed from elsewhere. My papers got good scores and I moved on, devoting my precious mental energy to struggling through my engineering courses.

After college, I continued my writing education the way I found most helpful: by reading excellent writing. Any books on writing that I did read were more about the process of writing rather than the content and structure of the writing itself. I trusted my instinct and accumulated reading knowledge to shape my writing. As Stephen King wrote in his memoir On Writing,

Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. … [R]ead a lot, write a lot” is the great commandment.

So I was skeptical when my husband told me Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace was an excellent book. And not only that, it was the “best book on writing he’s ever read.”

Was the best book on writing really an English textbook written by a college professor? This seemed unlikely given my experience with mediocre college writing courses. Still, I decided to give it a chance.

After reading the book cover to cover, including the appendix on punctuation, I can confirm that it is an extremely useful book. It’s not a dry sermon on grammar rules and the evils of passive voice. Williams provides practical guidelines for structuring writing (and when passive voice is not only appropriate, but important). He gives powerful techniques for viewing your own writing through the lens of the reader. He even provides a thoughtful framework for analyzing the more intangible aspects of good writing style like elegance and gracefulness. I read one chapter a day for two weeks and I gained more practical takeaways in those two weeks than all my high school and college English classes combined.

As for what the specific takeaways from the book are, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. I haven’t even fully absorbed all of the learnings myself. You can see my heavily-bookmarked copy as evidence of how many times I will reference this book in the future:

style_book Lots of really useful learnings in every chapter of this book.

I strongly recommend everyone read this book. Williams himself practices what he preaches: his writing is cogent, clear, and engaging. And this book is not only those who want to improve their writing! The subject of what makes good writing, and how and why it is perceived as good, is interesting on an abstract level. Just as general physics and history books can help you make sense of your experience of the universe and human civilization, Williams’ book helps you understand your experience as a reader of good (and bad) writing.

Most of all, you should read this book because it’s very funny. I didn’t think that a book with so many sentence diagrams, just pages and pages of analyzing fundamental grammatical and stylistic sentence parts, would have such incredible dry humor. My favorite parts of the book are the sections where Williams actually writes less–he revises torturous and esoteric prose into short, blindingly clear sentences with devastating results.

For example, here is his conclusion after he revises a 96-word excerpt down to just 30 words:

My versions lose the nuances of Parson’s style, but his excruciating density numbs all but his most masochistically dedicated readers. Most readers would accept the tradeoff. (p. 72)

Here is another funny passage where Williams destroys grammar snobbery with almost surgical precision:

“Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects “for style” virtually by reflect action.” –Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct

Yet just a few sentences before, Barzun himself (one of our most eminent intellectual historians and critics of style) had asserted, “Us[e] that with defining [i.e. restrictive] clauses except when stylistic reasons interpose.”

(In the sentence quoted above, no such reasons interpose.)

A rule has no force when someone as eminent as Barzun asserts it on one page, then violates it on the next, and his “error” is never caught, not by his editors, not by his proofreaders, not even by Barzun himself. (p.19)

So if nothing else, pick up this book for some satisfying takedowns of old dead writing elitists.

As I progressed through the book at the rate of one chapter a day, I noticed an interesting side effect of reading this way. I could easily tell which chapters were longer than others based on the relative time it took to read.

If we assume that Williams did his best to explain everything in the book as clearly and concisely as possible, then it must be the case that certain aspects of writing take much longer to explain than others. This certainly makes intuitive sense, since discussing how elegant or graceful a sentence is feels far more tricky than deciding if the sentence is clear or muddled to the reader. We can therefore try to quantify each chapter by the time taken to explain to readers (number of pages) as the measure of “difficulty” for that writing topic. Comparing the chapters against each other should then theoretically show their relative difficulty.

Williams divides his book into three major sections: “Clarity”, “Grace”, and “Clarity of Form.” Within each, he breaks the larger themes down into individual chapters. If we count up the number of pages:

Section Chapter Page count
Clarity Actions 20
  Characters 21
  Cohesion and Coherence 17
  Emphasis 18
Grace Concision 20
  Shape 29
  Elegance 23
Clarity of Form Motivating Coherence 13
  Global Coherence 13

On average, chapters in the “Clarity” section took 19 pages to explain while chapters in “Grace” took 24 pages to explain. We can perhaps infer that teaching and improving the gracefulness of writing is at least 26% harder.

Comparing pages is obviously a dramatic oversimplification of the difficulty for these aspects of writing. We should also take into account the meta-structure of the book itself, where chapters and subjects that come later are meant to build on top of a foundation of knowledge that Williams has previously established. Therefore we cannot say that “Grace” is only 26% harder than “Clarity” (or that “Clarity of Form” is 50% easier than both) because improvements to grace and clarity of form in writing demand a mastery of the preceding sections.

Another complicating factor is that the book covers increasingly ambiguous and difficult to explain topics. In “Clarity”, Williams is able to provide general principles to follow. There are exceptions and ambiguities of course, but by and large, writers can diligently follow these rules.

Once we get to the subject of “Grace”, Williams can only give options for revision rather than specific principles to follow. In lesson 8 (“Shape”), after providing techniques for achieving “coordination”–the balance of clauses and phrases within sentences–he ends the subject by pointing out the difficult of detecting good coordination,

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to recognize when elements are not coordinate in thought.

By the time we reach lesson 9, the unexplainability of the new concepts are front and center. Williams starts the introduction for “Elegance” with,

Anyone who can write clearly, concisely, and coherently should rejoice to achieve so much. But while most of us prefer bald clarity to the density of institutional prose, others feel that relentless simplicty can be dry, even arid. It has the spartan virtue of unsalted meat and potatoes, but such are is rarely memorable. A flash of elegance can not only fix a though in our minds, but give us a flicker of pleasure every time we recall it.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to do that. […] Nevertheless, there are a few devices that can shape a thought in ways that are both elegant and clear.

And finally in lesson 11, “Global Coherence”, we can’t even learn specific devices anymore to achieve global relevance across our writing,

[…] When readers can’t see the relevance of sentences to a point, they are likely to judge what they read incoherent.

I am sorry to say that I can’t give you a simple rule of relevance, because it’s so abstract a quality. I can only list its most important kinds.

So rather being able to apply a simple difficulty multiplier, it’s probably more like an exponential difficulty curve going from achieving clarity, to achieving gracefulness, and to finally achieving a clarity of form in our writing. And that’s not to say sentence-level clarity in writing is easy. I can see it taking me years to master what Williams laid out as good principles for clarity within the book. From there, my subjective analysis of the book’s content indicate that grace is at least 3x harder than clarity. Clarity of form is likely 10x or more effort and study than gracefulness.

It’s hard to definitively say how long or difficult improving certain aspects of your writing is. Even Williams, who wrote this excellent book to help us get better faster, has labored for years to improve his writing. I read the ninth edition of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which includes this humbling preface,

After twenty-five years of revising this book, you’d think by this time I’d have it right, but there always seem to be sentences that make me slap my forehead, wondering how I could have written them.

It will be a lifelong journey to mastering writing, if that’s even possible, so it helps to have a lot of good reference material and humor to help us along the way.

This article was last updated on 1/29/2022. v1 is 1,743 words and took 5.25 hours to write and edit.