A Simple Style

This acclaimed book is a master teacher's tested program for turning clumsy prose into clear, powerful, and effective writing. A logical, expert, easy-to-use plan for achieving excellence in expression, Style offers neither simplistic rules nor endless lists of dos and don'ts. Rather, Joseph Williams explains how to be concise, how to be focused, how to be organized. 
Filled with realistic examples of good, bad, and better writing, and step-by-step strategies for crafting a sentence or organizing a paragraph, Style does much more than teach mechanics: it helps anyone who must write clearly and persuasively transform even the roughest of drafts into a polished work of clarity, coherence, impact, and personality. Source: Amazon

Er, Not So Fast

I must object to such an unvarnished recommendation. Coming from the William Zinsser school of thought, I find his call to simplicity a bit more believable. But before we go there, let me back up.

On the last day of August, 2019, Gabriella Coleman posted this tweet:. I had stumbled on it while skimming twitter one afternoon before a nap. After the nap, I felt obligated to respond.

Since I am always on the hunt for books about "clear" and "simple" writing, Style's book jacket caught my eye. Thanks to the power of Amazon, I took a moment to skim Williams' Style. A lack of clarity pervaded the text. Why make students, even doctoral candidates, read something like this? The book is replete with convoluted textual examples. The suggestions for improvement do little to liven the text up (or improve the writing).

What book would I recommend? Avoid the stodgy texts on writing. Read something like Edward Bailey's The Plain English Approach to Business Writing. Now before you say, "Wait, Gabriella is worried about ph.D students!" I'll point out that no one wants to read that boring, run-on sentence (Ven, 2017) with embedded research quotes (Nixon, 2018) that goes on and on without ever coming to a conclusion (hehe).

A Better Investment

A better investment might be to get students to begin all their pieces in the Hemingway Editor app. Not the one on the web, but the $20 version you can install on your Windows computer (sorry, GNU/Linux users, I haven't checked to see if WINE will make it work).

Benefits quoted from their website:

  • The Hemingway Editor cuts the dead weight from your writing. It highlights wordy sentences in yellow and more egregious ones in red.
  • Hemingway helps you write with power and clarity by highlighting adverbs, passive voice, and dull, complicated words.
  • Hemingway has one-click integrations with Medium and any Wordpress blog (hosted on Wordpress.com or on your own). Publish a draft or live post, right from the Hemingway Editor.
  • Hemingway makes it even easier to work alongside other editors. We’ve added the ability to import text from Word .docx files—no more copying and pasting between programs. When you’re done editing in Hemingway, you can export to text, PDF, or Word.
  • Save a PDF of a piece of writing, with all the Hemingway highlights intact. Perfect for showing people what improvements they need to make.

Wouldn't it be cool to ask students to revise their papers using HE app? Then, include a copy of the first draft as a PDF with HE highlights? I'd love to see that as a professor or writing teacher.

Students could learn to write for a target readability. With the instant feedback Hemingway Editor (HE) provides, it is easy to make changes to a piece of writing.
"I am not built for academic writings. Action is my domain." -Gandhi as cited in Style

A Bit About My Writing Process

Ok, I write blog entries and articles for publication. I have not written a book, so "long-form" writing folks can take these points with a grain of salt. As I write quite a bit, my process has gotten easier with Hemingway Editor (HE). Here's my process:
  1. Compose a piece in the HE app
  2. Export it as markdown
  3. Open it in the free, open source program, Typora
  4. In Typora, select all, then copy as HTML
  5. Paste into text/html view of blogging interface
  6. Import images
  7. Publish
It's a pretty easy process. Why not copy-n-paste straight from HE? It doesn't come over looking as nice. You'd have to spend some time cleaning up the content.
"Pursue clear thinking. When you write, strive for clarity."

My Notes

Since I've been so rude in criticizing Williams' work, here are a few things I objected to in Style.
Williams complains that the following advice is not too useful; it omits the "how" to best achieve it
  • Omit needless words
  • Be clear
  • Write short sentences
  • Be specific
Those are useful suggestions.

3. Students who study grammar do not improve their writingI found this quite funny since Williams spent a lot of time discussing subject-verb agreement. It would have been easier to teach grammar than go through it the way he did.

4. Blah blah blah Williams spends a lot of time at the beginning talking about Anglo-Saxon's, Norman Conquest, Greek and Latin texts. Why?

5. Inclusion of Romance nouns result in "turgid prose" [Yawn]

6. Boring Examples

Williams provides ad nauseum examples of texts that are boring. Boring. Don't believe me?

Consider this example:
Decisions in regard to the administration of medication despite the inability of irrational patients voluntarily appearing in Trauma Centers to provide legal consent rest with a physician alone.
He then rewrites it in this way:
When a patient voluntarily appears at a Trauma Center but behaves so irrationally that he cannot legally consent to treatment, only a physician can decide whether to administer medication.
Williams suggests he could engage in more radical revisions but does not. Why? So he can show how to improve "murky sentences" without relying on a experienced talent. That is, young writers lack experience. They can't revise like someone with more experience.

Ugh, what baloney. Here's my not so radical revision:
Physicians may need to make critical decisions for patients. For example, say an irrational patient presents himself at a Trauma Center. The patient lacks the ability to offer legal consent. Only the physician may make the decision to administer medication.
If you could read this in HE app, you'd see the difference in the three versions (mine passes the HE app test).

7. The First Two Principles of Clear Writing

Readers are likely to feel they are reading prose that is clear and direct when:
  • the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters
  • the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are a part of
OMG. Why? Who cares?!? The rest of the book goes on and on in similar ways. I do NOT recommend giving this book to any novice writer. It's not the type of book that makes one say, "Hey, this is going to assist you in crafting writing that sings." Make your writing easy to understand, simple for the reader to process.

The HE App

Over time, I found myself revising my own writing to match the HE app's revisions. Rather than waste novice writers' time reading a book like Style, I'd recommend they use the HE app. This usage will enable them to reset their style.

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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