Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Writing Style 3

In the third lesson in Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb's book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition)they begin to tackle the question of clarity. They usefully observe that readers reflect on the writing of others with words like

clear, direct, concise or
unclear, indirect, abstract, dense, complex.

These adjectives don’t really tell us anything more than how the writing makes us feel. To say something is unclear does not actually say anything about the writing on the page. What then makes a piece of writing feel or seem clear or dense? Williams and Colomb begin here to make their case. Clear, direct, concise writing is characterized by two principles of clarity:

Principle #1: A sentence seems clear when its important actions are in verbs
Principle #2: A sentence seems clear when its important characters are subjects.

Lesson three’s focus is on the first of the two principles.
Readers will think your writing is dense if you use lots of abstract nouns, especially those derived from verbs or adjectives, nouns ending in –tion, -ment, -ence, and so on, especially when you make those abstract nouns the subjects of verbs (32).
When, for example, you create an abstract noun by putting an –ing on the end of a verb (e.g., eating), you are nominalizing the verb. Nominalization is the technical name for the phenomenon. You are transforming the part of speech from a verb to a noun. This can be done to both verbs and adjectives. Consider these examples:

Examples of verbs:

discover = discovery
resist = resistance
She flies = her flying
We sang = our singing

Examples of adjectives
careless = carelessness
different = difference
No element of style more characterizes turgid writing, writing that feels abstract, indirect, and difficult, than lots of nominalizations, especially as the subjects of verbs. (33).
Williams and Colomb recommend a three-part revision process for writers. This process is is tailored here to address the question of clarity.

1. Diagnose – Underline the first seven or eight words of each sentence
2. Analyze – Decide your main characters and look for the actions of the main characters
3. Rewrite – Make nominalizations verbs, make characters subjects and rewrite using subordinating conjunctions (because, if, when, etc).

Near the end of the chapter they return to a key question they raised earlier, but return to again:
Why are we so often right about the writing of others and so often wrong about our own?
Because we all read into our own writing what we want readers to get out of it.
Thus we need a "mechanical" method of revision that sidesteps our "too-good understanding" of our writing.

So the bottom line here is that to be a clear writer we need to take two concrete actions: (1) remove most of the abstract nouns from our sentences (certain abstract nouns are necessary) and (2) revise our sentences so that the action is contained in the verb and the character is in the subject.


Heather said...

Thanks for this, Joel. I got away with crappy writing in college, and I only just realized it the other day. My fiance writes weekly articles for a financial website, and they are spectacular. I revised an essay for my graduate school application, and it was far less spectacular. Haha! So, thanks. =)

Heather said...

Haha--case in point. Way too many commas. Oh, well. ;-)