Sunday, May 31, 2015

BOOK BRIEF: "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams

Serious students of the writing craft should read Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, now in its eleventh edition. Used widely in university composition classes, Joseph Williams's classic book explains the reasoning that drives writing excellence and offers practical advice in cultivating a quality style. (Style is now coauthored with Joseph Bizup since Williams passed away in 2008.)

The ten in-depth chapters of Style focus on specific, well-structured rhetorical lessons, including clarity, cohesion, emphasis, concision, elegance, and usage. The tips are practical, and the illustrative passages come from a broad range of contemporary disciplines. Those who are experienced enough to know that many writing "rules" are little more than picayune encumbrances will take pleasure where Williams debunks these silly standards: 

  • Don't begin a sentence with and or but.
  • Don't end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don't split infinitives.
  • Don't use double negatives.
Many more rule-breakers appear in this guidebook. For the sake of freshness, Williams seems comfortable with employing the comma splice, as in "Women have always been underpaid, they are now doing something about it," and omitting the comma between two grammatical sentences with a conjunction, as in "Oscar Wilde brazenly violated one of the fundamental laws of British society and we all know what happened to him." While you may not agree with all he has to say about clarity and grace, you will surely concede that he sensibly navigates through the politics of prose.