The Best in Style

The Best in Style

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The Best in Style


‘Style’ is an idea that can mean different things to different people. Some like to define it in terms of ‘being one's self’ and going against the norm. But after reading two prominent style guides, "Style Towards Clarity and Grace," and "The Elements of Style," I began to form a different view on the subject as it pertains to writing. When attempting ‘good style’ and ‘good writing,’ writers should try to be original and not follow every rule religiously, but still follow some common writing elements. Many can increase usability for readers. A writer could make something completely unique and the only one who'd ‘get it’ might be himself. In "Style," John M. Williams says it this way: "But however well a writer understands principles, it is not enough for those who also want to articulate that understanding to others"(2). Unless we're writing in a diary, we write to ‘talk’ to other people and the style rules aid in this. That is where the style manuals come. They both outline many useful elements, but at the same time contain some that aren't needed by everyone.

The first of these manuals is "The Elements of Style." Of the two manuals read in the class, this one had the least information yet the highest usability. It outlines grammar, usage, and style elements into simple paragraphs lead by headers. The approach sacrifices the depth that's offered in "Style," but allows for quicker referencing. The first section of "Elements" outlines most of the common usage and grammar rules. Some examples are "Use proper case of proper noun," and "Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list…"(Struck and White 7-9). Some would find these rules obvious or tedious. They don't guarantee great writing or style, but its less likely that you'll make useable writings without them. Seamless grammar alone aids the flow of reading. Multiple errors might slow the reader down and divert focus to the errors rather than the main point. Even after years of college, its not uncommon to find usage and grammar mistakes in some of my own papers; therefore, I could use much of what's in here.

The next section of "Elements" talks about principles of composition. It's similar to the usage section in that nothing alone listed will create great writing, but following some rules will make better writing more likely to happen.

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Also repeated throughout the Williams guide, one of this chapter's most useful pieces of advice is "use active voice" (Struck and White 18-19). The person doing the action should be the subject not an inactive object. An example in the book reads "My first trip to Boston will always be remembered by me." The author was the one who performed an action, yet the ‘trip’ was with subject. If it read "I will remember my trip…," the sentence becomes shorter, more direct, and more lively. The reader's attention will be captured more easily with active sentences.

The last section of "Elements" aims to teach more general style approaches. This section is the most flawed due to the vagueness of the half the advice and the obviousness of the rest, but more importantly, it tries to teach some style elements that don't always apply. One tip it gives is "Don't explain too much" (75). For example, the section says to avoid using adverbs after "he said"(75). These kinds of tips wouldn't be very helpful for writers like feature-writing journalists. Journalists many times have to give detailed accounts of actions and feelings while covering a tragic or intense event. For example, written sports analyses often contain vivid explanations to captures the feelings and actions of players during a champion game.

The second style manual we read was Williams’ "Style Toward Clarity and Grace." He takes what Strunk and White starts and adds more examples, details, and illustrations. If a writer takes serious time and effort to read it, they'd probably get much more out of it than S&W’s. S&W’s book would be the one I'd want to keep because of its brevity, but Williams’ gives you more to take in and think about. Much of the first part of the book expands on the discussion of active verbs that were looked over briefly in "Elements." He focuses in on passivity caused by abstract nouns and nominalization. Here's an example from the book: "Despise his knowledge of the need by cities for new revenues for the improvement of their schools,…"(Williams 21). In this introductory clause, all the actions, like ‘know’ and ‘improve,’ are in noun form. The result is writing that is abstract and will slow the reader down by making them mentally convert nouns back into verbs. Reducing both passivity and nominalization would improve numerous types of writing. You see it is too often in brochures, catalogs, and speeches. It's done to use larger words that sound smart overly important, yet it often ends up confusing readers, which might be the reason politicians do it, but doesn't explain why it's in college catalogs.

Another important style element that Williams discusses is the shifting of information. He recommended having less important info on the left and more important info for the right (68-69). He illustrates the point by converting part the book: "Moving the important information to the end of the sentence is another way to manage the flow of ideas" becomes "Another way you can manage the flow of ideas is to move the important information to the end of the sentence." The sentence has a sense of finality in the shifted version, and the last half leads well into information found in the rest of the paragraph. This style element could explain the use of introductory clauses and phrases in the English language; they let writers to put lesser info upfront.

In the "Usage" chapter, Williams spends a lot of time discussing which of the numerous style and grammar elements are valid and which are not. He takes a lot of time calling out grammarians who is insist on adhering to every rule at every time: "a few especially fastidious writers and editors try to honor and enforce every rule of usage…and there are a few writers and editors who know all the rules…but also know not that all of them are worth observing…"(Williams 178). This advice makes sense because it's not only the way people should write, it's the way people ideally should live their lives. If you know all of the information about a certain group of actions, you can reject the actions that aren't worth your time and focus on the actions that are. In many ways, Williams’ point could apply to S&W’s book. It gives you all you need to know about style, grammar, and usage, but you have the choose not to observe parts of it.

Both style manuals were useful and enjoyable in their own ways. "Style" tries to get you thinking about what the ‘rules’ are all about, while "Elements" just gives them to you in and out. It's a case of two manuals with similar goals taking different approaches. While it's enjoyable, "Style" is probably something I’d never read again. My normal reading is already full: newspapers, online stuff, and textbooks. Plus it's not something I’d like to experience over and over again– sort of like a 3-hour movie. But the knowledge gained from using "Style" in 328 will be helpful. The tiny "Elements" has a better chance of being looked at again for quick referencing.


Works Cited

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

Williams, Joseph M.. Style Toward Charity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990.
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