Have Something to Say

Today I want to post on “Style – Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph M. Williams. The book teaches you how to write so that people will read what you wrote.

Right off the bat, I’ll share that this book was a hard read. There were so many examples of bad writing that it made it very difficult to read.

In this blog post I hope to write out something that will at least make it so that you can take away the content without having to read this tedious book.

The author writes, “That’s the aim of this book: to explain how to overcome a problem that has afflicted generations of writers – a style that, instead of revealing ideas, hides them.”

I still don’t regret reading it. I just wish the format had been a little more digestible and that the book had been filled with fewer examples and tests for the reader to complete.

Here are five of the ten lessons that made the most impact on me:

  1. Have something to say
  2. Know what you’re talking about
  3. Keep it Simple
  4. Write Shitty First Drafts
  5. Apply Economy to your Writing

I’ve included quotes from the book below to support the five lessons I’ve selected to share.

1. Have something to say

“Have something to say , and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” – Matthew Arnold

2. Know what you’re talking about

“Some writers choose complicated language not only to plump up their ideas, but to mask their absence, hoping that turgidity will impress those who confuse difficulty with substance. When we don’t know what we’re talking about, our first recourse is usually to put up a smoke screen of big words in long sentences.” – Williams

“We usually find that we are able to write more clearly once we more clearly understand what we are writing about. When we have to write about a subject that confuses us, we will almost invariably write in ways that confuses others.” – Williams

3. Keep it Simple

“One of the most certain evidences of a man of high breeding, is his simplicity of speech: a simplicity that is equally removed from vulgarity and exaggeration… He does not say, in speaking of a dance that “the attribute of the lades was exceedingly elegant and peculiarly becoming at the late assembly” but that “the women were well dressed at the last ball.” – Williams

“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” – Samuel Johnson

4. Write Shitty First Drafts

“Experienced writers get something down on paper as fast as they can, just so they can revise it into something clear, and if they are lucky, in the process discover something new.” – Williams

5. Apply economy to your writing

“To get to that sentence, I applied five principles of economy:

  1. Delete words that mean little or nothing.
  2. Delete words that repeat other words.
  3. Delete words whose meaning your reader can infer from other words.
  4. Replace a phrase with a word.
  5. Change unnecessary negatives to affirmatives.”

– Williams

I hope this list of notes on style and grace in writing have made an impact on you. I hope the next time you write something, you make sure you have something to say, know what you’re talking about, keep it simple, write a shitty first draft, and apply economy to your writing.

Contact me if this blog helped you!

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Author: David Neely

Professional Software Developer. Technology and Web Coordinator at the University of Hawaii's Manoa Career Center.