Attending to Style
Most of us know good style when we see it. We also know when a sentence seems
cumbersome to read. However, though we can easily spot beastly sentences, it is not as
easy to say WHY a sentence – especially one that is grammatically correct – isn’t working.
We look at the sentence; we see that the commas are in the right places; we find no error
to speak of. So why is the sentence so awful? What’s gone wrong?
When thinking about what makes a good sentence, it’s important to put yourself in the
place of your reader. What is a reader hoping to find in your sentences? Information, yes.
Eloquence, surely. But most important, a reader is looking for clarity. Your reader does not
want to wrestle with your sentences. She wants to read with ease. She wants to see one
idea build upon the other. She wants to experience, without struggling, the emphasis of
your language and the importance of your idea. Above all, she wants to feel that you, the
writer, are doing the bulk of the work, and not she, the reader. In short, she wants to read
sentences that are forceful, straightforward, and clear.
How do you manage to write these kinds of sentences? We hope to instruct you. But before
we begin, we’d like to recommend a book to you: Joseph Williams’ Style: The Basics of
Clarity and Grace. In this book, Williams outlines ten different ways to think about and to
improve your sentences. If you are interested in becoming a better writer, consult this
book. It informs much of what we say to you here.
THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF THE SENTENCE
PRINCIPLE ONE: FOCUS ON ACTORS AND ACTIONS
PRINCIPLE TWO: BE CONCRETE
Principle Two, The Exception: Abstract Nouns & When To Use Them.
PRINCIPLE THREE: BE CONCISE
PRINCIPLE FOUR: BE COHERENT
PRINCIPLE FIVE: BE EMPHATIC
PRINCIPLE SIX: BE IN CONTROL
PRINCIPLE SEVEN: WRITE BEAUTIFULLY
In your career as a writer you will sometimes produce a paper that is well written, but that
might be written better. On this happy occasion, you might wish to turn your attention to
such matters as balance, symmetry, climactic emphasis, parallel structure, rhythm,
metaphor, and language. If you are interested in exploring these rhetorical tools, we
refer you once again to Williams’ book Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. You will find
valuable advice there.
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