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Style is a very ambiguous word. Asking the question, “What is Style?” is almost a philosophical endeavor, comparable with “What is Truth?” Asking the question, “What is Good Style?” is even harder. Society’s boundaries are constantly shifting to accept or banish items from the definition, in art and writing specifically. Yet there are certain elements that remain constant in all these changes, and these are the elements that style manuals try to pin down.
Before the class reading/blogging project began, I thought of style as the method a writer uses to communicate his/her ideas to the reader. I still do. If the point of writing is to communicate ideas, and the vehicle we use to transport the ideas from our brains to our readers is our STYLE, then the most important element of style is being clear.
What I have learned from reading Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Joseph William's Style Toward Clarity and Grace is that there are a variety of ways to make writing clear. Each book has its own unique approach to the problem of establishing clear communication in print.
Strunk and White’s method of attack is from the angle of the writer. The rules outlined in the book focus on the writer’s image of what he is communicating. The rules are designed to help the writer sort through her own thoughts on paper, and extract the essence of what is being communicated. The theory seems to be that clearer writing begets clearer thinking.
For example, rule #14 in Strunk and white states "Use the active voice." If we compare the two sentences given in the example;
"Do not say: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Do say: Dead leaves covered the ground." (S&W 18)
we see how the active voice communicates more clearly than the passive. The excess words get in the way of what the writer is trying to say.
This is compounded in rule #17, “Omit needless words.” The passage states that “Vigorous writing is concise.” (S&W 23) This reference to vigor and other health terms is mirrored in other rules, and is a clue-in to the entire Strunk and White approach to style. Good style to them is a way of thinking, a confidence in thought that lends itself to forceful, clear statements by the writer.
Williams Style Toward Clarity and Grace carries on many of the same rules that are laid down in Strunk and White, only with a different approach.
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This quote from Williams is a great example;
"As flexible as English is, it does have a problem with indefinite subjects. Unlike writers of French, who have available an impersonal pronoun that does not seem excessively formal, English has no convenient indefinite pronoun. In this book, we have used we quite freely, because parts of this book are written by two people. But many readers dislike the royal we when used by a single writer, because they think it is pretentious." (Williams 29)
This careful consideration of the reader is something that Strunk and White rarely reflect on. The Strunk and White approach can be compared to an engineer who designs a car for functionality. Williams design focuses on the users, the occupants.
Martha’s blog comments point out this difference between the style manuals. On Strunk and White;
“I feel that for the most part, Strunk and White’s book was filled with reinforcements of things that I had already learned over the course of my education in writing classes. Reading Strunk and White was like hearing my 7th grade English teacher shout the rules of writing all over again.” (Ventura)
Strunk and White are trying to emphasize the structure of writing in their approach to style. The prominence of simple rules of grammar, among other things, is evidence of this.
And on Williams;
“I just really feel that Williams captured the very essence of writers that at times try too hard (myself included!) in that chapter. It goes right along with Strunk and White’s advice of “write in a way that comes naturally,” when Williams talks about wordiness, redundancy, meaningless modifiers, and excessive detail. No reader wants it, yet too many writers think it’s the only way they can sound “good.”” (Ventura)
Her comments on Williams show how he places his emphasis more on a writer’s expression, and the perception readers have of what is being said.
Good style is a combination of the two approaches laid out in the manuals, clarity in structure, and clarity in expression. This is the constant that survives all the changes in literary society. It’s also what most people mean when they say “that’s good writing”. They are referring to the style of the piece, not the value of it.
Contrary to what I thought before this project began, there is something to be gained from reading these two style manuals. They remind me that as long as I’m clearly communicating, I will have achieved the goal of transporting my ideas, valuable or not, from my brain into the world. That is style.
Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Longman, 2000.
Ventura, Martha. “Martha Ventura’s Blog.” http://marthaventura.blogspot.com/
Williams, Joseph M. Style Towards Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.