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Getting started with Williams: Introduction through Chapter 2

After the “continued” are a few of my notes on these opening chapters of Joseph Williams’ Style:  Toward Clarity and Grace. But let me mention a couple of things right off the bat:

  • A warning:  Williams is much more difficult and complex reading than Strunk and White. While Williams has the advantage of actually being “readable” like a book– that is, it isn’t the same kind of “reference” book as Strunk and White– he is much more complex and sophisticated in his approach.  Because of this, I like Williams better than Strunk and White (we’ll get to that in a moment).  But while Strunk and White is an easily skimmable/read in 90 minutes kind of book, Williams is not.  So plan on spending more time with this one!
  • I am not going to disguise the fact that I really REALLY like this book, and I’ve always thought the advice he offers here for the advanced writer is so smart, detailed, thoughtful, useful, etc.  Much more so than Strunk and White, in my opinion, because Williams is not trying to give watered-down advice.  Just the opposite!  And because of that….
  • …. Williams does go into quite a bit of detail.  And I will admit that sometimes that detail can get confusing and a little excessive.  So if you don’t get each and every example or it doesn’t all make perfect sense on first reading, that’s okay.  Just do the best you can with it, and recognize that this is a book that does merit a second or third reading.

Getting Started

  • Williams was a Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago. He died in February 2008, unfortunately.
  • Pages ix-x: Williams establishes his purpose and his audience; it’s quite a bit different than the purpose and audience of Strunk and White’s book.
  • Page xv: There’s a balance between one’s ability to understand “bad writing” and one’s prior knowledge of a subject; note here Williams’ early emphasis on audience, which is already quite a bit more nuanced than Strunk and White.

Chapter 1: Causes

  • Pages 1 and 2: Note how Williams opens this book by marking the differences between his purposes and S&W’s purposes. And notice the difference between the way Williams begins versus the way that S&W begin. The passage on the bottom of page 1 and top of page 2 is also useful.
  • History is important of course and I think the examples of different writers (Orwell, Cooper, etc.) in this chapter are interesting, but I think the most important causes to consider are more personal, such as the ones he discusses on page 11.  In my own experience as a writing teacher, I can tell you there are a lot of students who come to college freshman composition traumatized by high school English teachers obsessed with grammar and errors.  So if you are going to be a high school teacher, do me a favor and don’t do that.  Thanks in advance.

Chapter 2: Clarity

  • Williams favorite word: turgid?  It actually is a useful word here; it means “Excessively ornate or complex in style or language,” and also “swollen or distended.”  Icky.
  • What makes a sentence feel “unclear” or turgid: page 19.
  • The First Two Principles of Clear Writing (or the best part of the book, IMO). See pages 21, 20, and 23.
  • Clear sentences are not necessarily simple ones. Page 25.
  • A bit about nominalizations on pages 30 through 33.  This can be kind of tricky, but as Williams says, “turgid prose typically uses a verb not to express action but merely to state that an action exists.”  Thus the nominalization, which is a noun derived from a verb or adjective.  Most of the time, these make for good writing; but he explains on pages 32 and 33 that there are good uses of nominalizations too.
  • The beginning of passive on pages 36 through 40. Note the difference between the way Williams explains this and the way that S&W explain things– or rather, don’t explain them, really. The use of passive will come back in the next chapter, too.
  • Metadiscourse (or writing about writing), pages 40-41.
  • Too many nouns– a good tip on 42.
  • The charts (see page 43, for example): I have never really gotten these things before.  So if they work for you, that’s great; but if they don’t work for you, that’s okay too.

Posted in Class Readings.


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