Clarity and grace in writing

Style is a classical book by Joseph Williams. Writing here could be notes I can look for in the future.

  • Correctness
  • Actions
  • Characters
  • Cohesion and Coherence
  • Emphasis
  • Concision
  • Shape
  • Elegance
  • The ethics of Prose
  • Epilogue: from clarity to coherence

Intro to Style

  • Don’t think about styles when you are writing. Revise it later.


  • Distinguish grammatical rules from folklore. e.g: “Don’t do anything” vs. “Don’t do nothing”
  • Avoid like when you can use as or as if
  • Avoid hopefully to mean I hope. Similarily for candidly, frankly, sadly, happily.
  • Avoid finalize to mean finish or complete.
  • Never use impact as a verb.
  • Never modify absolute words (perfect, unique, final, complete, etc.)


  • Two principles for clarity (of individual sentences): character as subject, and action as verb. Don’t use verbs in noun form as subject.
  • More specifically, use the central character as subject, and use verbs to name the actions those characters are involved in.
  • It would be good to reduce normalization and turn them into verbs instead.
  • However, avoid making the sentences look like 12-year-old kids. (See Lesson 8, Shape and Lesson 9, Elegance).


  • Use characters as subjects (instead of normalized verb).
  • Can use a general term as subject, instead of just using abstract notions.
  • A character is whatever that can be the subject of a series of a sentences, and still tells a story.
  • (Just avoid changing the subjects. Sometimes you might need to use passive voice for some sentences. It’s ok.)
  • Metadiscourse (“I show”, “I think”, etc.) is ok.
  • Try avoid long string of nouns, if they are unfamiliar to readers.
  • Writing in a complicated way might be necessary to convey subtle details, in the price of clarity.

Cohesion and Coherence

  • How to reach cohesion? Start the sentence with information familiar to readers, and end with relative newer. You can use passive voice to flip sequences.
  • Let a chunk of passage switch topics as few times as possible.

Rhetorical Emphasis

  • Primacy and recency effects. Head of sentence talks about topic, and tail of sentence brings in new information (or complex terms) that will be remembered by the readers (better than if you put them in the middle).
  • Three tactical revisions to get emphasis on words that deserve it:
    • Trim the end. Drop any unrelated information.
    • Shift peripheral ideas to the left. Avoid ending with anticlimactic metadiscourses!
    • Shift new information to the end.


  • Five principles of concision:
    • Delete meaningless words
    • Delete doubled words
    • Delete what readers can infer
    • Replace a phrase with a word
    • Change negatives to affirmatives
  • Avoid excessive hedging (e.g. “seems to be”, “proves”, “suggests”, …)

Shape: control logical complexity

  • Two rules of thumb: (1) get to the subject quickly, and (2) get past the subject to its verb quickly. Break down long subjects, remove interruptions, etc.
  • Reshape sprawl. Reduce syntactic complexity (especially constituency parsing tree depth) of the sentences. Change clauses to phrases.
  • Coordinate. When extending sentences with clauses, try go from short to long, and make the structures balanced. (In CL terms: reduce Yngve statistics of the semantic parsing tree.)
  • Could extend the line of a sentence with resumptive, summarative, and free modifiers.


  • The most striking feature of elegant prose is balances sentence structures.
  • Going towards the end of sentences, place some words with heavy semantic or syntactic weight. Normalizations > nouns > adjectives / adverbs > prepositions.
    Three devices to do it:
    • “of” normalization
    • echoing salience
    • chiasmus (“crossing”). Instead of “AB:AB”, could use “AB:BA” instead.
  • Sentence lengths. Short sentences could indicate urgency, passion, etc.
  • Metaphor.

Ethics of prose

  • Ethical responsibilities of writers and readers. Responsibilities.
  • Unintended or intended obscurity (e.g. so as to deviate responsibilities, etc.).

Epilogue: from clarity to coherence

  • Make your main point clear
  • Make everything relevant to your point
  • Make your organization clear
  • Motivate your readers to read purposefully
    • Two kinds of problems (pragmatic and conceptual)
    • Imagine readers keep asking “so what?”
    • Common-ground + condition + cost + solution.