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In a search for the meaning of true style, I consulted two books on the subject. These texts differ on many levels, but most strikingly are their styles of presentation. Strunk and White, authors of The Elements of Style, lean more towards the rule-book approach, telling us what to do and when to do it without much explanation. John Williams, on the other hand, uses his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace in almost a lecture form, filled with comparative examples of correct and incorrect ways to approach his stylistic suggestions. While the Strunk and White text is smaller and therefore seems to be the better read by default, its guidelines and helpful hints tend to be vague and often contradictory. Williams offers the reader a longer, but manageable, text full of detailed examples and prompts for the reader to test their understanding of his suggestions.
When it comes to defining style, Strunk and White can give us no precise definition. They believe that "there is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly (S&W 66)." In addition to this statement, Strunk and White, give the beginning writer 21 rules that will help them find their style. If I already know these rules (which Strunk and White suggest I do) then they should already be embedded in my style. I shouldn’t need to read about them. In truth, I do. Even skilled professional writers need a refresher course on form every now and then. The Elements of Style offers just that, a quick reference guide for refining your style-not defining it.
With a contrasting approach, Williams sets his definition of style as something that cannot be directly taught. Instead of giving us rules to follow, Williams presents devises used by graceful writers, what he calls "ingredients of a modestly elegant style (Williams 153)." As a beginning writer, I found Williams to be helpful. I was able to identify and understand where he was coming from. Several of his "ingredients" were elements that I already try to incorporate into my writing, but now I feel I can do so more seamlessly.
One such element, the 4th ingredient in Williams style recipe, is the use of the metaphor.
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That is the main problem I have with The Elements of Style; their rules contradict how they write in their book. Strunk and White may not recommend extensive use of metaphors in a text, but they use several. By far the most dramatic is on the need for writing to be clear.
Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expectingto be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram (S&W 79).
This warning, which is all that I can think to call it, has made me fearful of "muddy" prose, but has not told me how to avoid it. Williams, on the other hand devotes an entire chapter to Clarity. To achieve clarity, Williams’ suggests using subjects to name characters and to have the verbs perform the actions of those characters (Williams 25). These suggestions are helpful-a practical application that is useful and easy to follow. Clarity is a crucial part of any genre of writing, of anyone’s style. I believe that’s the point Strunk and White are trying to make with their imagery of "death", "heartbreak", and "anguish"-although it could have been made much clearer.
There are several aspects of creating clear prose besides using subjects and verbs. What types of verb used and using that type throughout are also important. What form should writers use, active or passive? I prefer the passive form because it allows more freedom in using figurative language. Williams accepts the use of either form, but cautions against frivolous use of the passive. He says that "if in a series of passive sentences, you find yourself shifting from one unrelated subject to another, try rewriting those sentences in the active voice. If, however you can make your sequence of subjects appropriately consistent, then choose the passive (Williams 38-9)." Strunk and White urge in Rule 14 to Use the Active Voice, but even they argue that only using active verbs "makes for forcible writing". Their suggestion is to pay attention to the subject of the sentence and let it determine what voice is needed (S&W 18). The choice is ultimately that of the writer and depends on their preference and the situation in the text.
It may seem that I do not value what Strunk and White offer in their text, but that isn’t true. While I do find their rules a bit arbitrary, the grammar lessons given in the first quarter of the book are priceless. Can a person have an elegant, clear, and graceful style without having good grammar skills? It is, of course, possible, but so often good style and good grammar go hand in hand. Strunk and White give the writer a set of the Elementary Rules of Usage, every English grammar textbook I have ever read condensed into 14 pages. Those pages cover everything from participial phrases to comma usage (S&W 1-14). Strunk and White also discuss the importance of planning in their chapter on composition saying that it "must be a deliberate prelude to writing (S&W 15)." They go one to say that: "The first principle of composition…is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape (S&W 15)." In other words, outline your paper, your thesis, and even your paragraphs so when you write, there is a purpose and not just random words. I can no longer begin a paper without planning what I want to say. I believe this element to my writing also enhances my style. When I sit to actually write out my paper, I can focus on how I am writing a paragraph rather that the content of it.
Have I found my perfect style yet? No, I am still at the beginning of my search, but I feel that with the advice and strategies I have found from reading both The Elements of Style and Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, I have a better idea of where I am going. I have guidelines to follow, strategies to play out, and a set of rules to help me find my way. But then again, rules are made to be broken. The knowledge of the rules of usage, of form and composition, of clarity and grace, of style, are put in place only to give us direction. The paths we take, as writers, are our own. An author’s style is as much in his ability to follow these rules, as it is to bend and break them.
Strunk, William Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.
Williams, Joseph M., Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: The U of Chicago Press. 1990.