Defining Writing Style

Defining Writing Style

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Defining Writing "Style"

Many accomplished authors have tried distinguishing what "good writing style" is. Some believe it is writing simply, others believe it is writing precisely. Numerous books have been published in order to help define this murky area called "style." Matthew Arnold, poet and critic, once said "Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style." So why then is this topic so unclearly defined? Perhaps it is because each person has had different writing influences and needs improvement in different areas. To address this problem, many famous authors and professors have contributed to the writing style literature. William J. Strunk, and E.B. White wrote The Elements of Style which was followed by another book, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. Strunk, a former college professor at Cornell University, came up with the idea to publish a book on fundamental usage of the English language or "the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated" after teaching them to college students (Introduction, xiv). E.B. White, who is known mostly for his book, Charlotte’s Web, and also for his creative non-fiction, was a student of Strunk’s who was so inspired by his former teacher’s work that he added to the book and had it published after Strunk’s death. Some time later, professor Joseph M. Williams of the University of Chicago, elaborated on the principles discussed in The Elements of Style and published his own book, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Williams is a contemporary writer and the difference between when the books were published is apparent in each text. Although all three writers agree that good writing style consists of clear and concise prose which contains the right amount of emphasis and proper grammar, the level of detail, structure, and content of each book reflects the authors’ intent to target different reader audiences.

To begin with, the authors indicate their definitions of good writing style through the organization of each book; the format and structure of each indicates that the authors were targeting different reader audiences. The Elements of Style is a reference book, set up with a detailed index describing the usage of different words and concepts. Its format is almost like an MLA handbook, with numbered, bold rules followed by simple examples. Williams’ book is set up in paragraph form and can only be understood when read in its entirety.

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Detailed examples of bad writing followed by better writing and an explanation of why the latter is better appear throughout the entire first half of the book. In his examples, Williams makes use of bold and italics to draw attention to words and parts of sentences which were improved. Strunk and White present their main points in bold, numbered lists, followed by short examples, much like a reference book. At any point in time, a reader could turn to a page in The Elements of Style and start reading a bold heading followed by its short explanation and have a good idea of the point being made. On the other hand, if a reader arbitrarily started reading Williams’ book, they would certainly be lost and have to read from the beginning of the book or chapter. As a result, students probably prefer Strunk and White because of its reference-style format, easy readability and easy to use index. Williams’ book is geared more towards professional writers who want to "improve their reports, analyses, articles, memoranda, proposals, monographs, [and] books" (Prefae, ix).

In addition to Strunk and White’s book being geared toward students, it is also geared towards writers whose language is flowery and "overwritten." Each author agrees that language which is "wordy" is problematic and unclear. Williams refers to this as a problem with concision. Strunk and White’s response to concision is "Do not overwrite" stated simply and followed by a short example. Williams devotes an entire chapter on how to write concisely, and his examples are very detailed. Strunk and White use a simplified approach and target the writer who writes extensively, the kind of person who "dumps a whole bag of coffee grounds into a filter for one cup of coffee" (Collin, online). Writers who have trouble limiting their word choice may turn to Strunk and White for guidance.

On the other hand, writers who need more detailed explanation of concision would be wise to read Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. Williams has written his book partly in response to Strunk and White’s simplified version of style. Williams tried to " more than just urge writers to ‘Omit Needless Words’ or ‘Be clear’" claiming that being told to "be clear" and being showed how to be clear are not synonymous. Williams’ goal was to help writers "understand why some prose seems clear, other prose not, and why two readers might disagree about it..." (1). So, although each writer believes the same basic principle, that verbose writing leads to unclear writing, they each had their own idea of how to convey that information.

While there are many principles that each writer agrees upon, there are some instances where the authors do not agree. For instance, Strunk and White believe that the use of "he" is a "practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language...Substituting he or she in its place is the logical thing to do if it works. But it often doesn’t work, if only because repetition makes it sound silly or boring" (60). The belief that "he" should be used over "she" or the prose will sound silly would probably not appeal to many businesspeople who are forced to be politically correct. Williams disagrees with Strunk and White and claims it is sometimes better to be wordy than offensive. He goes on to say that the use of "he," "she," or "they" is largely a personal decision based on the writer’s audience. For many students who are establishing writing boundaries, Strunk and White’s advice may seem appropriate, but for the professional writer, Williams’ advice is more useful.

Another example of how the authors’ perspectives on style differ is apparent in the first chapter of each book. On the first page of The Elements of Style, Strunk and White set forth rules for grammar which seems commanding and unbreakable. This kind of writing may appeal to students who need clearly defined writing parameters but may not appeal to the more accomplished writer. For this reason, Williams’ advice may be more useful for professionals. Williams believes that "A writer who observes every rule can still write wretched prose. And some of the most lucid, precise, and forceful prose is written by those for whom some of these rules have no standing whatsoever" (197). Following his advice, rules should be used as guidelines which can be stretched or altered.

Regardless of which style book is more appealing, they both contain useful information which can always be referred to. Each author makes a point to cover the most important issues involved in defining style. Grammar and syntax, word choice, subject positioning, noun and verb agreement, and proper emphasis are all part of what it takes to write clear, concise prose. How that information is conveyed to readers is crucial to some and not others. Many students and writers who have difficulty with word choice may prefer Strunk and White’s style guide for its structure and format. Other, more accomplished writers may prefer Williams’ for its detailed examples and its use of business examples such as medical texts, business manuals, and legal documents. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein states, "Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly." It is the writer’s job to master this task in a way so their writing is clear, concise, and effective.

Works Cited

Collin. Blogs. 20 July 2004. <>.

Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Longman, 2000.

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
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