The Significance of Style
Robert Burton, lifelong scholar and librarian in the 16th century, wrote: “It is most true, stylus virum arguit,--our style betrays us” (qtd. in Bartlett). Whether inserting the most complicated words possible in order to sound scholarly, littering sentences by overusing slang and contractions, or keeping every sentence to a tight structure of subject, verb, object with no variation—these elements of style used improperly say something, even if unintentional, about the writer. In the end, the writer ends up sounding pompous, uneducated, or stilted and boring. While it would be easy to confuse style with voice and insist that every writer must be true to their voice and so cannot “learn” style, it is clear that style is much more than just the voice of the writer. No one writes in order to sound pompous, uneducated, or boring; we write to educate, to entertain, or even to make connections. Two books, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams, and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, address the issues of style and attempt to give the writer tools to improve their writing style. While there are many important elements to style, the ones I found most helpful deal with audience, clarity, and emphasis.
Few people write for the pure pleasure of writing alone—writing is meant to be read. According to Williams, it is important “to understand not only [writings] social origins but its social consequences” (xi). He asserts that when writing is unclear, often the reader mistakenly makes the assumption that it is their fault when it is the writers. In other words, writers have a responsibility to write clearly for their intended audience. The elements of style that Williams addresses (such as clarity, cohesion, emphasis, concision, and length), when used consistently, can improve the readers understanding and/or enjoyment of a piece of writing. Throughout Williams’ Style, the writer is held responsible for unclear writing that is detrimental to the understanding of a reader. Strunk & White, on the other hand, tend to portray the reader in need of saving, even going so far as to use the label “bewildered reader,” giving the impression that writing must be made clear and concise because the reader is in someway lacking in intelligence (xviii). This difference in tone highlights why I feel Williams does a more effective job in teaching style—because the responsibility of the writer is clearly to the audience. Bad writing, especially in areas such as academics, can confuse a reader, erode their confidence in their understanding, and present an obstacle to learning. Everything we, as writers, do in order to organize and clarify our writing has the result of putting our message across more effectively to our readers (Bowron).
One of the ways a writer effectively reaches readers is through clear writing. While Strunk & White deals with passive voice in a (small) page and a half, it...