Style and Clarity

This page collects numerous helpful resources on clear writing style–all of which are based on or inspired by Joseph Williams‘s classic book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (earlier published as Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace). Some of the ideas discussed on this page are also covered on my page on Audience and my page on 3 Things All Students Should Know About.

Joseph Williams was a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago and was one of the founders of the university’s famous writing program (often referred to as “the Little Red Schoolhouse [LRS],” which was the nickname of its iconic academic writing course). That program’s methods and insights regarding academic writing can be helpful for students and instructors at all levels (undergrad, graduate, and professional). That’s one reason why my page on Arguments is also based on the LRS approach to academic writing.

Style and Clarity – Key Ideas

Williams’s book includes a wealth of useful information, and I strongly recommend reading it (you can find used copies cheaply online). Here, I’m just going to focus on a few key points that I find myself repeating to students over and over. I should note that these points are my summaries of some of Williams’s ideas (along with the ideas of some of my fellow Williams acolytes that are mentioned further down on this page). Thus, any errors or oversights are my own.

Point 1: A sentence tells a story. You should make the grammatical subject of your sentence the main “character” in the story.

A character in this sense can be a person, but it can also be an abstraction, idea, concept, process, or any other topic. An example will make this clear:

The analysis revealed that students retained more information when classroom activities involved student-directed inquiry.

In the sentence above, “analysis” is the main character, and it’s also the subject of the sentence–it is the agent of the verb “revealed.” In other words, the analysis is what we want to talk about, and we tell the reader that the analysis did something (i.e., it performed the action of some verb–in this case, the verb is “revealed”). At a fundamental level, this structure is no different from a line in a story. For example, the sentence “William Tell shot the apple off his friend’s head” tells us that a character (“William Tell”) took some action (“shot…”). In our “academic” sentence, however, the character is an abstraction (“analysis”) instead of a person. No big deal. The structure of “character X does action Y” is still simple and effective. Notice also that the subject and verb are close together, which makes the sentence easier to read and understand (I cover this point in more detail on my page on Audience).

Contrast that sentence with this one:

That students retained more information when classroom activities involved student-directed inquiry was one of the key facts revealed by the analysis.

This sentence is not grammatically incorrect. But most people will agree that it’s harder to read and understand than the first one (and might require a second or third reading). Notice that the subject of this sentence is a long noun phrase: “That students retained more information when classroom activities involved student-directed inquiry” (and the verb is the past-tense verb of being: “was”). But that phrase is not really a character that performs some action. Instead, it’s just being equated with something else. That is, this sentence simply states that one thing was equal to another thing: noun phrase (“that…inquiry”) = one of the key facts revealed by the analysis. Notice also that, because the subject is a long phrase, the verb is not near the beginning of the sentence. That means that the reader has to keep a lot of information in their short term memory before they get to the “payoff” of the verb (see point 5 below for more info on this point; see also my page on Audience).

So, because the first sentence tells its message by giving us a character (“analysis”) that does something (“revealed that…”), it’s a lot easier to read and understand than the second sentence (which tells the same message but doesn’t give us a character or an action). Make sense?

Point 2: Style and clarity are for the reader.

As Williams’s student Larry McEnerney (himself a brilliant writing guru) likes to say:

No writing advice makes any sense unless we clarify who the reader is and what they expect to get out of the text.

An important idea to keep in mind is that, simply in virtue of being a graduate student, you are what we “writing people” like to call an “expert writer.” This doesn’t mean that you are an expert at writing (although you might be–every grad student has a great deal of experience writing a wide range of specialized texts; just think of all the class papers, emails, bibliographies, and message board posts you’ve probably written over the years). By “expert writer,” we mean a person who writes on a specialized (expert) topic. In your field of study, you write about topics that not everyone knows about. Often, these topics are so complicated that even you can’t really think about them clearly without putting your thoughts down on paper. In other words, you have to write in order to think. HOWEVER, your reader doesn’t care about your thinking process. The stuff that you write in order to think is almost never going to be useful to your reader. Therefore, once you’ve written in order to think, you have to go back over the text and re-write it (re-organize it, re-word it, re-structure it, and so on) so that it’s organized for your reader’s benefit. Doing this is difficult. It requires a massive act of empathy–you have to imagine yourself in your reader’s shoes. Who is my intended reader? What can I expect them to know about this topic already? What do I have to explain to them? What is the best order for me to explain things in so that the reader will follow my argument and not get confused? What are sources of possible confusion that I need to explain especially carefully? Asking, and answering these questions will help you think about how to re-write your paper for the reader. And the style tips on this page are intended to help make your writing reader friendly (although style tips alone won’t assure that your text is accessible to the reader–you also have to develop clear arguments and a reader-friendly structure). For more information on these ideas, see my page on Arguments and The Craft of Writing Effectively (YouTube video).

Point 3: Your writing will be clearer if you put actions in verb form.

Another way to put this point is: avoid using too many “nominalizations.” Nominalizations are “nounified” words that result from turning a word (usually a verb) into a noun. Here’s one example: The verb “calibrate,” like most verbs, describes an action: in this case, the action of ensuring that scientific instruments function precisely and accurately. However, we can “nominalize” that verb by turning it into a noun, “calibration.” This new noun, like pretty much all nouns, describes a particular thing (i.e., a person, place, object, or idea)–in this case, the process of calibrating. Is it incorrect to use abstract “thing”-words like calibration? No, of course not. Very often they are necessary in academic writing. However, notice that “calibration” is a bit more abstract than the verb “to calibrate.” Thus, if our writing is full of such nominalizations, it can be harder for the reader to make sense of. For example, which of these is easier to understand?

1. The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

Or

2. Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

Most people agree that 2 is easier to understand on a first reading than 1 is. Notice that 1 is full of nominalizations:

“proliferation,” “nominalization” (which, incidentally, is a nominalization of the verb “nominalize”), “discursive formation,” “pomposity,” and “abstraction.”

Note also that nominalizations–at least as I’m describing them here–don’t always result from “nounifying” verbs. You can also form them out of adjectives (describing words), as in the example above that turned the adjective “pompous” into the noun “pomposity.” You can even form nominalizations out of other nouns: a “crony” can be nominalized into “cronyism,” for example.

Why does any of this matter? The point is that your writing will be clearer if you avoid nominalizations except when they are necessary. Are you writing about the concept of “alienation” in the early Marx? In that case, you should use the nominalization “alienation”–it’s really the only word for the job. Are you discussing the theory of “phyletic gradualism” in evolutionary biology? Again, this is the best phrase for the job, so keep it. But imagine you were writing a scientific article and you included a sentence like this:

The mass spectrometer managed the measurement and identification of the proteins.

It will probably be easier to read if you put the nominalizations “measurement” and “identification” into their verb forms:

The mass spectrometer measured and identified the proteins.

Putting the actions into verb form made the sentence a lot easier to read.

For more examples like this one, visit the Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource and my page on Audience.

Point 4: In your sentences and paragraphs, it’s best to move from old information to new information.

Readers expect sentences to start with familiar (“old”) ideas and end with unfamiliar (“new”) ideas. When writers disrupt this natural, expected flow of communication, readers tend to get confused. The following silly example will make this idea clearer:

One upon a time there were three little pigs. Scrappy, Sparky, and Spanky were their names. Bricklaying is a difficult job, but Scrappy was very good at it. Poetry is totally different from bricklaying, and poetry was Sparky’s passion.

This example does NOT flow from old to new information. Notice how each sentence after the first one starts with a new “thing” (i.e., a new noun)

–Scrappy…

–Bricklaying….

–Poetry….

To the reader, this structure can be very confusing. To see this, pay attention to the order in which information is presented to the reader. First, the reader learns that there are three pigs. Then some apparently unrelated words are introduced–“Scrappy ” etc.–and only after is the reader informed that these words are the names of the pigs mentioned in the first sentence. Then, the topic is suddenly switched to bricklaying, What does that have to do with anything mentioned so far? To better understand the problem (and how to avoid it), contrast the previous passage with this better-written one:

One upon a time there were three little pigs. The pigs’ names were Scrappy, Sparky, and Spanky. Scrappy was a bricklayer. Bricklaying is a difficult job, but Scrappy was very good at it. Another thing that Scrappy was good at was poetry, his true passion, which is totally different from bricklaying.

This passage, while far from perfect (I warned you that this example was silly!), uses a much better flow from old to new information. The first sentence introduces a new concept: there are three little pigs. The next sentence begins by gesturing back at this information (which is now the old information): “The pigs’ names were… ” In other words, the sentence is saying “the names of the pigs that I just mentioned were…” before listing the pigs’ names. Then, the next sentence refers back to one of the mentioned pigs (old info)–“Scrappy…”–before telling us the new info–“…was a bricklayer” (new info). Then, because bricklaying was just mentioned (now that’s our old info), the next sentence starts with that (“Bricklaying…”, which is old info) and tells us the new info about it: “…is a difficult job, but Scrappy was good at it.” You get the idea.

Most of the time, we use such old-to-new structure without even thinking about it. But sometimes in our academic writing, this structure gets disrupted, making the writing unclear. This problem can often be solved by slowing down and thinking carefully and deliberately about whether we’re using a proper flow of old ideas to new ideas.

Point 5: Whenever possible, keep main characters close to the actions that they perform (i.e., keep subjects and verbs close together)

Consider this example:

The big fish ate the little fish.

The main character (subject) is “the big fish.” What action does this character perform? It “ate” (verb). This sentence is perfectly comprehensible because the main character appears right before the action.

But contrast that sentence with this one:

The big fish, although not, at the moment, hungry, as a result of having eaten a whole school of smaller fish less than an hour before, but feeling it within his nature—seeing that he was quite evil—to devour another fish simply to prove a point to onlookers, ate the little fish.

In that sentence, the subject and verb are the same as in the previous sentence (big fish; ate). But there’s a whole bunch of additional words between the subject and the verb that make the sentence difficult to read. The reader has to keep all of that additional information in their short-term memory while waiting for the “payoff” of the verb, meaning that the sentence takes more mental work to get through.

Notice that we can revise the sentence to get the main character and action close together and still keep all of that additional information:

The big fish ate the little fish, even though he was not, at the moment, hungry as a result of having eaten a whole school of smaller fish less than an hour before. However, he felt that it was in his nature—seeing that he was quite evil—to devour another fish simply to prove a point to onlookers.

This revision is not perfect. There are many ways to make the passage more elegant, clear, and precise. For example, there are unnecessary words that could be removed, and some of the pronouns (he, it) are potentially ambiguous. But I don’t want to re-write the sentence too much because it would obscure my main point: you can keep subject and verb close together and still add clarifying information, elaboration, and context afterward.

Free Online Resources on Style and Clarity

Cain Project Writing Modules

The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication has an excellent set of 3 modules based on the work of Williams, Colomb, Booth, and others. The first module focuses on many of the topics discussed on this page.

You can download module one in PowerPoint format here:

You can also download all 3 modules in PDF “book” form here:

Dr. Joe Bizup: Teaching with Style Using Joseph Williams’s Classic Guide

Although this video is geared mainly toward teachers, much of it is also useful for students. The main presentation begins at 3:39, and the discussion of the key ideas about clarity begins around 5:27

Dr. John Burkett’s Style Playlist

Dr. John Burkett at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has a great series of videos on style based on Williams’ work. You can access the full playlist here.

Further Reading

Williams, J. M., & Colomb, G. G. (1990). Style: Toward clarity and grace. University of Chicago Press.

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. W. (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.

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