Notes on “Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams

Long form reading and writing are increasingly becoming popular on social media thanks to Medium and other tools these days; while several style guides are available, yet very few cover the nitty-gritty of the art and science of writing as a process. Joseph Williams’ “Lessons in Clarity and Grace” is one of the best books of clear and graceful writing.

My ten take away lessons from reading his guidance on writing:

  1. You can use a common motif for writing different types of texts, starting with sentences through writing a book.
  2. For long form writing, open with a shared context or problem, insert a middle, and end emphatically.
  3. From right to left as you write, shift from the familiar, simple to the more complex, unfamiliar information. You can do this in the space of a sentence, a paragraph, or a section in your writing.
  4. Write in active voice. Use passive voice when you need it or when it will add to the grace and style of the writing.
  5. Tell a story with a character; follow the subject-verb-object motif. Use your subject as a character, make it do something; keep the subject-verb-object as tightly knit as you can.
  6. Align your subject as the “topic” of the text you write. Great if you can use a real character, otherwise, an abstract concept or if your topic is an abstract concept, use it as a character just as you would name a concrete character.
  7. When you write the introduction section for larger pieces (story, essay, nonfiction, research report), start with either a shared context or a problem. The shared context should be common knowledge; start with the shared context, and immediately contradict it with “but” or “however” to introduce a problem. Decide if the problem is a real world actionable problem or if it is a theoretical, conceptual problem. If it is a real world actionable problem, introduce a cost that the reader has to pay for the consequence by addressing a “so what?” question; if it is a conceptual problem, then write about a larger issue where the problem introduced was an instance, and let the reader decide.
  8. End your sentence emphatically.
  9. Write your sentences in a sequence. The opening sentences introduces the topic, and succeeding sentences qualify that topic. While this is your desirable cohesion, you also want your sentences to be coherent as a whole.
  10. In order to be coherent, you arrange the sentences to make sense as a whole. Coherence should be both local (sentence through paragraphs) and global (sections through the document).

With these ten points in mind, start with a mind map. Use the mind map to lay out the main sections and subsections of the “story”, and then add details to flesh out the narrative. Introduce the topic with the first sentence of the first paragraph, then end the first paragraph with your topic sentence. In between the beginning and end, subsequent sentences in the first paragraph will flow from this first sentence to flesh out what is going to come in the next paragraphs and sections. The remaining paragraphs flow from this first introductory paragraph with short, pithy words to introduce the topic.

Build the paper or story with this general motif. Start simple, and end with complex information with both at the levels of sentences and paragraphs/sections. As the composition will need to end with high impact words, avoid ending with prepositions as they will weaken the sentence structure or composition. For strong endings, use strings of nouns or nominalisation, where verbs are made nouns. Besides, use hedging (words that qualify certainties of your opinions) sparingly, and avoid intensifiers as far as possible. While you can begin a sentence with “and” or “but”, keep such sentences to a minimum (one or two per page).

I hope I can keep these advices in mind as I write; at the peril of being pedantic, I’d say these are great advices for anyone starting out. The book has numerous other examples, well worth digging in.