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When putting pen to paper or typing on a keyboard in order to write something, a writer makes decisions. These decisions will result in what will be the writer’s finished work and will unintentionally reflect what the writer knows about writing style. In just trying to convey his or her ideas, a writer will follow rules of grammar and spelling as well as various advice accumulated through formal and informal education. If the writer has a good understanding of what they’ve learned, it will come out in their writing. After reading William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style and Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, I’ve learned that style is the culmination of many factors.
Beginning in elementary school, people learn the basic, concrete rules of grammar. These aren’t so much elements of style as they are the foundation of writing. While necessary, a person can have perfect grammar but poor style. Many of the rules mentioned in the first chapter of Strunk and White, such as, “The number of the subject determines the number of the verb,” (9) are those that remain fairly rigid. If a writer didn’t follow this rule, and the number of subject and verb didn’t match for instance, the mistake would be glaringly obvious to the reader. Williams also discusses this toward the end of his book in a section titled “Real Rules.” Here, he includes rules such as not using double negatives and not substituting adjectives for adverbs (180). These rules are the building blocks of writing and that is why a writer would be looked down upon if he or she were to break them. Therefore, when writers break rules like this, it is usually to make a point by doing so.
After these concrete rules, one begins to learn rules that are a little fuzzier in their application. These are rules that should be followed but can be broken given the right circumstances or if it is done systematically. For instance, Rule 14 in Strunk and White states, “Use the active voice.” What this means is using active verbs as opposed to inactive ones to prevent boring the reader.
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"Good Style is a Reflection of a Writer Making Good Choices." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Feb 2020
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From there, the writing student moves on to an area more aptly referred to as “advice.” None of these are set in stone, nor do they have to be followed ever if the writer doesn’t see it in their best interest. Much of Strunk and White, and even Williams, focus on advice to make one’s writing stronger. Advice on writing includes how the rules can be applied to make a person’s writing stronger. For example, Williams gives many bits of advice on how to achieve clarity when writing (17-43). Making sure the reader understands the writer’s point is most often the goal of writing, which is why clarity is so important. However, if an individual writer already writes exceptionally clear, without using the methods offered in Williams’ set of advice, then this writer has little need to use this advice. This is not to say that the writer should disregard the advice entirely. In writing there is always room for improvement and it is up to the writer to determine if certain advice will help or hinder their own writing.
Good style then, is utilizing the basic rules, the fuzzy rules, and the advice in conjunction. There is still more to it than that though. In his chapter on elegance, Williams says, “knowing the ingredients and knowing how to use them is the difference between reading a cookbook and Cooking,” (153). What Williams is trying to say with this analogy is that simply knowing all the rules of writing won’t necessarily make one a good writer. Strunk and White say something similar in chapter ten of their book, where they explain that style doesn’t always make sense (66-69). In other words, sometimes a writer will make choices that make a sentence less clear, or more indirect, but somehow that sentence has a power all its own, a sort of lyrical quality that makes it better than a clearer, more concise alternative. To put it another way, a writer will sometimes make what would stylistically be considered a “bad” choice, but when put in the proper context it becomes the right choice.
In good style, advice really comes into play, along with the writer’s decisions. Because style is such a slippery kind of idea, it is nearly impossible to come up with simple rules to teach a writer good style. Therefore, what is left is some advice. These are basic steps that can lead a writer down the path towards good style. Basic steps can range from Stunk and White’s advice to “write in a way that comes naturally” (70), to Williams discussing emphasis and rhythm (157). In either case, the authors are offering methods to achieve nearly the same end. Because good style is easy to identify doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to describe or define.
Ultimately, it is up to the writer to make the right choices when they write and catch problems when revising. However, in order to do this, a writer is required to have some knowledge about how to write well, including the ability to identify good and bad writing. By taking in advice, whether immediately useful or not, a writer can educate him or herself to become a better writer. Using books such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace would definitely be a good start if a writer wanted to help their writing by accumulating more advice on how to have good style. In so doing they will learn the appropriate choices to make when writing and that good style is a reflection of a writer making good choices.
Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Fourth Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.
Williams, Joseph. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.