Book Summary – The Sense of Style (The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century)

Classic style differs from “practical style,” which people use to write memoranda or research papers, and from “plain style,” which puts “everything…in full view” so “the reader needs no help in seeing anything.” Most books on writing address the practical style, not the classic style. You won’t always use classic style, but understanding it matters if you want to write coherently and well. Classic style makes it appear to the reader that the writer “fully formed” the thoughts in the text in advance of writing them down.

Why Do Some Writers Write Badly?

Have you wondered why some people whose job it is to write – say, researchers or academicians – don’t do it well? They may suffer “professional narcissism” – forgetting that their audience members are regular people, not their learned colleagues. Or perhaps they’re “self-conscious” writers who feel uncomfortable with their readers and lean on tricks like “signposting” (repeating their points before and after they make them, as in rhetoric), adding excessive quotation marks, or “compulsive hedging” – using terms like “somewhat” or “presumably.”

Confidence

Strive for a confident voice: Refrain from using clichés, and avoid “abstractions” that work against the cinematic flavor of your writing. Abstractions are sentences without people in them that include words like “framework, model” and “process.” “Nominalization” – transforming a verb like “prevent” into a noun like “prevention” – leaves you with hollow phrases and words that become what writing scholar Helen Sword calls “zombie nouns [that] lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.”

“Classic style is an ideal.”

Some guides instruct writers to dodge zombies by turning the nouns back into verbs and avoiding the passive voice. That’s good advice, although passive voice can be appropriate when writers use it to keep the reader’s focus.

“The Curse of Knowledge”

Writers often fall victim to the curse of knowledge; they find it hard to envision or to slip into the experience of readers who don’t have the same information they do. Whether the curse of knowledge encompasses “hindsight bias” – the writer thinks everyone shares his or her awareness of, for example, a historical event – or “illusory transparency” – the writer understands the background of a conversation and thus knows characters’ points of view better than readers do – this curse is often the main reason writers write badly. Visualizing your readers looking “over your shoulder” isn’t a cure-all, but it’s a good place to begin. Understand how your knowledge stacks up against theirs. To avoid the curse of knowledge, also:

  • Avoid or explain “jargon, abbreviations and technical vocabulary.”
  • Reread what you’ve written. If it doesn’t seem clear, it’s not.
  • Be aware of “chunking”: Readers won’t group associations in their minds the same way you do because their life experiences differ from yours.
  • Never assume that making yourself clear to readers means you’re condescending to them.
  • Beware of “functional fixity.” For example, you may understand what a “stimulus” is, but to your readers, it’s a “tap on the elbow.”
  • After you write something, ask people you know to read it in draft form. Do they get it?

Growing and Trimming Your Trees

Good writers need to understand the workings of grammar and syntax, the way writers organize English-language concepts “into a left-to-right order on the page.” Syntax “uses a tree of phrases to translate a web of thoughts into a string of words.” Diagram a simple sentence in an “upside-down tree” format. Adjacent words should cluster into phrases; if they don’t, confusion results.

“Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

Each part of speech – nouns, verbs, adverbs and so on – play important roles in a sentence. Where you place them makes the difference between clarity and fuzziness. In this example, “In Sophocles’s play, Oedipus married his mother,” it is clear who was the writer and who got married. For more complex sentences, “syntactic awareness” of how words group and work together can rescue the writer. Be aware of these pitfalls:

  • Subject-verb agreement – “The bridge to the islands is crowded.” The subject of the sentence – bridge – is separated from its verb, but the verb remains singular even though “islands” is plural.
  • “Coordinators” – A sentence that is made up of two phrases and links them with a conjunction must give both phrases “the same function.” For example, Stephen Colbert’s book title, I Am America (And So Can You!)is incorrect, although amusing.
  • “Assignment of case” – This mostly applies to the use of pronouns and can lead to overcorrecting yourself, such as when people say “I” when they should say “me,” or “whom” when they mean “who.”

“Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer.”

Traditional style guides urge writers to “omit needless words.” For example, say “since” instead of “in view of the fact that” or use “speed up” instead of “significantly expedite the process of.” Good writers don’t have to remove all ostensibly superfluous words, if their style or descriptions call for them, as long as the sentences are smooth and clear, and don’t mystify their readers.

“Phony rules, which proliferate like urban legends and are just as hard to eradicate, are responsible for vast amounts of ham-fisted copy editing and smarty-pants one-upmanship.”

To avoid confusion, organize your sentences well. Test them by reading them aloud. Are they logical, or do they take your readers where you don’t intend?

Clarity

Strategies for writing more clearly include:

  • Use punctuation correctly – Bad punctuation leads to ambiguity. Read the headline, “Man Eating Piranha Mistakenly Sold as Pet Fish.” The hyphen missing from “man-eating” matters.
  • Use prepositional phrases – Try “Strikes by Teachers Idle Students” instead of “Teacher Strikes Idle Students.”
  • Use “structural parallelism” – Consider the symmetry and rhythm of Winston Churchill’s exhortation: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight on the hills; we shall never surrender.”
  • “Save the heaviest for last” – For the most compelling reading, follow this rule of thumb when you put words in a list, as in, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Arcs of Coherence”

“Failure of coherence” is a common and widespread problem, especially in long forms such as magazine stories or books. Even “crisp, lucid and well-formed” sentences can seem incoherent if they are placed in a sequence that feels “choppy, disjointed” and “unfocused” to the reader.

“Deep in the mists of time, someone decided that an apostrophe doesn’t belong in a possessive pronoun, and you’ll just have to live with it.”

For better coherence:

  • Make your subject clear – State it early so you don’t keep readers guessing.
  • Communicate your “point” – What is your goal in discussing this subject?
  • Help your readers focus on a “protagonist” – If your article seeks to explain the winter behavior of herons, don’t start chatting about Canada.
  • Avoid “synonymomania” – Using the same word twice is acceptable, especially if you’re “comparing or contrasting two things.”
  • Use “connectives” for coherence – Simple phrasing like “such as” and “therefore” helps illustrate how your thoughts relate to one another.
  • Avoid “negations” – “The king is alive” is better than “the king is not dead.”
  • Be aware of “proportionality” – Devote the bulk of your writing to your main point.
  • Use “consistent thematic strings” – Present ideas that build on one another. Make their “common threads” clear.

Correct and Incorrect Usage

According to “myth,” in the past, “prescriptivists” dictated correct grammar and usage, while “descriptivists” relied on how people actually use language. That’s not how it works. Dictionaries have always reflected popular usage, and no battles ever occurred between prescriptivists and descriptivists. However, dictionaries and reference guides don’t immediately accept – and often reject – rules based on common wisdom, such as forbidding split infinitives. If you’re in doubt about usage, look it up.

“The unconscious mastery of language that is our birthright as humans is not enough to allow us to write good sentences.”

These acceptable usages may surprise you:

  • “Ain’t” – Songwriters from Gershwin to James Brown ignored the proscriptions against using “ain’t.” It also appears in “homespun truths,” such as, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
  • “Like” versus “as” – The 1960s ad “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” was technically correct. Writers can use either. “As” is a bit more formal.”
  • “Preposition at the end of a sentence” – The construction is acceptable when it communicates something important, like “That’s what this tool is for.”
  • “That and which” – The belief that “restrictive clauses take ‘that’” is incorrect. Use “which” to introduce a restrictive clause, as in “the things which are Caesar’s.”
  • “Absolute and graded qualities” – Avoid “very unique” because “very” is a weak modifier. You may modify absolutes to make a point, such as “a more perfect union.”
  • “Less” and “fewer” – Use “less” with a “singular count noun,” such as “one less car.”
  • “The singular they” – English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun. Make your subject plural, or use an “indefinite or generic alternative” to avoid the problem.

“Though correct usage is well worth pursuing, we have to keep it in perspective.”

Good writers shouldn’t torture themselves over purist-versus-common usage issues such as “hopefully” (“Hopefully, it will stop raining”) or “nauseous” (in the sense of feeling sick).

Take care not to misuse, among others, these words and phrases:

  • “Beg the question” – This correctly means that something “assumes what it should be proving.” It does not mean “raises the question.”
  • “Flaunt” and “flout” – To flaunt is to show off; to flout is to treat with contempt.
  • “Hung” and “hanged” – People who are executed may be hanged, not hung.
  • “Affect” and “effect” – Misusing these words makes readers think you’re careless.
  • “Lie” and “lay” – This error arises from “lay,” which can be present or past tense.

“Thankfully, James Brown was never tempted to hypercorrect ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ to ‘I Got You (I Feel Well)’.”

Be religious about the proper use of commas, semicolons, dashes and quotation marks.