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Defining writing style is somewhat like describing Big Foot. People study it, and talk about it, they try to enlighten others about it. But when it’s all said and done, you just rely on; “I’ll know it when I see it.” Style is not unique onto ourselves, but I think that we all, either as audience or as writer, have our own interpretation of style. For example, the University of Miami’s Philosophy and Literature Departments hold a Bad Writing Contest that gives mock prizes to the “worst published academic writing” that someone can find (Miami.edu). It is all in good fun and it is based solely on the opinions of the judges of the contest.
The texts, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Williams and Elements of Style by Strunk and White teach about the importance of “good style.” Both books are quite different in their approach and the style in which it is presented. Strunk and White is short and sweet. Williams is lengthy and often times a tedious read. Both books are biased to their opinions; Williams is more instructional while Strunk and White almost sounds like a reprimand. However, both books offer up a wealth of knowledge and support.
Both Williams and Strunk and White discuss the idea of clarity. Clarity is an important element of style because without it, you will have a lost or disinterested audience. Strunk and White state, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts”(23). Keeping this in mind will help a writer to stay on track. Instead of digressing on an unrelated topic, the writer can focus on a point and stick to it.
Williams has two principles that help with managing and expressing a flow of ideas in a concise manner:
1. Usually, compress what you mean into the fewest words.
2. Don’t state what your reader can easily infer (115).
A writer can achieve meaning compression by eliminating such things as redundant pairs (full and complete, true and accurate) and redundant modifiers (completely finish, past memories) (116). Some of these examples are so common in our speech that we can fail to see them as a problem in our prose.
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"Growing With Style." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Jan 2020
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Something important that is discussed in these two texts has to do with a writer’s voice. It should be confident and it should be sophisticated. That does not mean a writer has to use pretentious language and a thesaurus. Strunk and White states, “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able” (76). Not only does ostentatious expression and verbose idioms hodgepodge the text, it gives the impression that the writer really has no idea what they are talking about. Often times the “twenty dollar word” doesn’t even make sense in the context of the passage. Williams writes about being pompous and authoritative in one instance and being able to change to laconic and direct in another. “The problem is to hear the voice you are projecting and to change it when you want to” (79). Strunk and White are less helpful than Williams and simply state, “use the active voice” (18). We have many ways that we present ourselves and usually it is situationally based. The situation determines what style voice we use and how to present it.
Punctuation and sentence structure help clarity in a text. Strunk and White touch on punctuation guidelines, and have a wonderful setup for easy reference. Williams, on the other hand, does not mention it at all. I think there are a couple reasons for this. First, I believe that the Williams text is for the more educated reader. While Strunk and White would do well in any high school classroom, Williams is more appropriate for a collegiate setting; he assumes that you know the basics of punctuation. Second, corrections for punctuation are easier found in other sources. The text of Strunk and White is arranged in an easy to reference format. A quick flip through the index will take you wherever you need to go.
The relationship between clarity and sentence structure is discussed in both texts. Williams writes, “If you begin a sentence well, the end will almost take care of itself. So the first step toward a style that is clear, direct, and coherent lies in how you manage the first few words of every sentence” (67). Strunk and White discuss this by simply stating, “Keep related words together. The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship” (28). This is the example they give:
He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center.
He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug.
It is clear in the second sentence that the stain is in the center of the rug, as opposed to the rug that’s in the center. Sentence structure and punctuation may seem trivial in the grand scheme of writing, but it can make or break the clarity of a text.
Style is the ability to clearly address your audience and still incorporate an audience that you did not expect. Style allows you to use your voice in a confident and sophisticated way to communicate your ideas. Style is not individual. There is no such thing as a “personal style”; it all comes from somewhere. Having style allows you to grow and evolve with your work. Showing style is how you prove that you not only write a lot, but that you read a lot as well. Writers become good writers by first becoming good readers. That does not mean excelling in the process of reading, but excelling in the practice of it. Reading texts that specialize in style help a person become both a good writer and a good reader. Then there are texts, like Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, that will keep teaching us every time we pick it up.
Strunk, Williams, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York:
Macmillian Publishing, 1979.
University of Miami Philosophy and Literature Department. “Bad Writing Contest”
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago