Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Writing Style 4

Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb's continue to tackle the question of clarity in the fourth lesson of their book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition). In the last lesson the point was made that 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.
In lesson four the focus is on the second of the two principles: “Make the subjects of most of your verbs the main characters in your story”.

Now you might be saying to yourself, I don’t write stories; I write non-fiction essays or blog posts or something other than narrative. But before you stop reading, consider this: every sentence is a story with actors and actions. It is true that sometimes our “characters” are abstractions like “the argument” and “my thesis”, or “freedom of speech” or “the incarnation”. Nevertheless, our sentences tell stories about those subjects.

Readers expect to find characters expressed in simple concrete words early in a sentence. Williams and Colomb’s put it this way:
Readers want actions in verbs, but even more they want characters as subjects. We create a problem for readers when for no good reason we do not name characters in subjects, or worse we delete them entirely (47).
Williams and Colomb’s recommend that whenever possible, we use flesh-and-blood characters as our subjects. Often, even when we’re using abstract nouns as subjects, we can convert them into flesh-and-blood characters.

Consider my silly simple examples:

My argument is dogs are better than cats.
* I argue dogs are better than cats.


It has been shown that people find more enjoyment from dogs than cats.
* Researchers conclude that people gain more enjoyment from dogs than cats.

These are very simple examples admittedly, but the principle can be applied to the writing on the most complex of subjects. It is not the subjects so much as it is the style of our writing that is at issue. One qualification: when your main characters are necessarily nominalizations (verbs or adjectives made into nouns), be sure to use as few around as is possible. Keep the nominalizations to a bear minimum.

One final thought from the lesson: In summing up the main point, Williams and Colomb’s refer to something Albert Einstein said. Einstein used to say that everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. They develop that one step further to make their point: “a style should be as complex as necessary, but no more” (64).

Here’s the Writer’s Golden Rule:
“Write to others as you would have others write to you”.
See first post: Writing Style 1, 2, 3.


Dan said...

I am going to read all these posts.

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