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Review of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace By Joseph Williams

The genre of stylebooks and handbooks has long been dominated by a few big names like Strunk and White, along with an endless supply of metoo-ers. Their utility aside, these books are most remarkable for their sameness, and their hesitance to deviate from the established traditions. Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace—now in its tenth edition—stands out for its thoughtfulness and for its innovation.[1][2]

Style was the main text chosen for an advanced editing course that I took a decade ago, and I’m glad it was. I’ve heard my share of vague and prescriptive advice on writing—avoid the passive, be succinct, revise often—but Style gave me a more tangible set of practical tools to parse prose and rework syntax towards, as he calls it, “clarity and grace.” Williams’s program has since become second nature to me and it has sharpened my writing and my editing more than all the other books on the topic combined.

In this genre, many handbooks contain different permutations of the same advice. Some of this advice Williams has included, including eliminating wordiness and putting emphasis at the ends of sentences. But while Williams starts with the tried-and-true advice, I was struck by how much of what Williams advises was unusually specific and amazingly fresh.

Williams’s program is guided by two main principles: if your syntax follows a prototypical structure—one that’s simple to parse—and if make the syntax of your sentences mirror the semantics of your message, then your prose are made immensely clearer. Your reader skips the mental gymnastics required to interpret turgid prose.

In practice, this equates to a handful of rules of thumb. Avoid nominalizations, which are nouns derived from verbs, often ending in suffixes such as –tion and –ing. Use verbs to describe actions. Use nouns to describe characters. So far, this will change “our analysis of the company’s performance” to the more straightforward “we analyzed how the company performed.” He adds: put the topic, or something that refers back to prior discourse at the beginning of the sentence. Put the grammatical subject, verb, and object(s) as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible, with minimal interruptions between. Then pile everything else afterwards. At times I felt like this could be condensed into a few paragraphs, but of course, 300 pages makes this book a more substantial package, and it allows space for illustrative examples and practice exercises.

Williams doesn’t give advice in bullet-pointed directives or in disconnected bits and pieces; he builds an editing system that meshes as a unified whole. Each principle is fleshed out in an entire chapter, complete with practice exercises. In a way, it’s like learning to write in a foreign language (minus the foreign vocabulary): you learn how to express yourself in a new syntax that is contrary to the ways that many of us naturally write. Each of the chapters is presented as a lesson that builds on the previous. What you learn is an interconnected system of editing, a new way to dissect and reassemble sentences.

I especially want to emphasize how Williams does in this book four things that set him apart from just about every other writing guru out there:

1. He narrows the scope of his book to sentence-level revisions of nonfiction. Many others default into trying to encompass every phase the writing process of all genres. By setting his scope so narrow, Williams can delve into the excruciating details of the rhetoric of the sentence. His program can truly help you perfect one small part of your writing; just don’t expect this book to teach you how to do research or how to organize your paper.

2. He makes grammar useful. I have seriously wondered whether students who learn grammar learn to do anything practical besides parsing sentences and nitpicking “mistakes.” Many studies show it’s not helpful to better writing, but that may be because grammar is traditionally taught as a simplistic list of mechanical no-no’s. Williams differs in that he treats grammar as a descriptive nomenclature that allows editors to more consciously manipulate a sentence’s syntax in ways that mirror its semantics.

3. He rejects rigid prescriptivism, and urges that “[t]he alternative to blind obedience is selective observance.” Many other writing handbooks, such as Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, never make this distinction, so they freely mix their good advice with longstanding myths about not splitting infinitives and other silliness. That sort of advice helps your writing about as much as avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk helps your health.

4. He draws on linguistic research. Writing handbooks traditionally come from writers in the humanities, writers who have little time for or faith in empirical research. Williams breaks from tradition as he informs his text with Eleanor Rosch’s research in Prototype Semantics. The disciplines of Linguistics and Writing come together, creating very useful advice for writers.

Style is not a book for beginners. If you haven’t become comfortable with advanced writing, this book won’t help much. Also, it helps to already be familiar enough with traditional grammatical terminology that you can parse a sentence into its constituents. Although Williams does briefly review traditional grammar, you will get overwhelmed if you have to learn both the grammar terms and a style lesson simultaneously. As a college teacher, I wouldn’t recommend assigning this book in any class before second-year composition.

The biggest problem with this book is that it still remains such a secret.


[1] This review was originally written in 2004 in response to the sixth version of the book. Since then, the book has changed in small ways, and I’ve updated the review in small ways. Williams died in 2008, and Gregory G. Columb is now listed as a co-author.

[2] Full-disclosure: As a writing teacher, I have received free evaluation copies of textbooks from the publisher of this book, Pearson-Longman. I received no compensation in exchange for this review. In fact, the original version of this review was written half a decade before the publisher sent me free evaluation copies.

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