Style in Writing
I am working my way through Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb. I would recommend it for anyone who makes writing or editing their profession. It is a thin little book with 264 pages in total (including Appendices, Glossary, and Index) with twelve lessons in five parts that address style, clarity, grace, clarity of form, and ethics. More quotes to come, I’m sure.
“The problem is, we cannot judge our own writing as others will because we respond less to the words on the page than to the thoughts in our minds. We can avoid that solipsistic subjectivity only if we can figure out how what we have put on the page makes our readers feel as they do.” p. 7
“A warning: if you think of the principles offered here as rules to follow as you draft, you may never finish anything. Most experienced writers get something down on paper or up on the screen as fast as they can. Then as they revise that first draft into something clearer, they understand their ideas better. And when they understand their ideas better, they express them more clearly, and the more clearly they express them, the better they understand them…and so it goes, ending only when they run out of energy, interest, or time.” p. 8
“If writers whom we judge to be competent regularly violate some alleged rule and most careful readers never notice, then the rule has no force. In those cases, it is not writers who should change their usage, but grammarians who should change their rules.” p. 18
“You can’t predict good grammar or correct usage by logic or general rule. You have to learn the rules one-by-one and accept the fact that some of them, probably most of them, are arbitrary and idiosyncratic.” p. 23
“We distinguish these two kinds of sentences because readers can respond to them very differently: the one you are now reading for example, is one long punctuated sentence, but it is not as hard to read as many shorter sentences that consist of many subordinate clauses; I have chosen to punctuate as one long sentence what I might have punctuated as a series of shorter ones: that colon, those semicolons, and the comma before that but could have been periods, for example–and that dash could have been a period too.” p. 211
Simply because we are editors, that does not mean we are, or should be, “grammar nazis.”
While I do get a laugh at those grammar arguments that sometimes get surprisingly heated, I find that I usually have a side. We can get into a whole descriptivist vs. prescriptivist argument. This quote, from the late Joseph M. Williams, pretty much sums up my feelings:
“If writers whom we judge to be competent regularly violate some alleged rule and most careful readers never notice, then the rule has no force. In those cases, it is not writers who should change their usage, but grammarians who should change their rules.” -Joseph M. Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
Quotes on Editing
Quotes from Leslie T. Sharpe and Irene Gunther in Editing Fact and Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
“Editors can do harm primarily in two ways: when they alter an author’s individual style–her voice–or when they change the content or meaning of her prose. Doing no harm when editing a manuscript means doing the minimum necessary to clarify an author’s language or intent.”
“New editors, anxious to prove to their superiors that they have mastered the minutiae of grammar and usage, tend to overedit. But so, at times, do experienced editors, perhaps in an effort to validate the importance of their own function, or simply out of a failure to grasp what a writer is trying to accomplish.”
“Gratuitous editing and unnecessary rewriting are the most common complaints writers make about editors. And justifiably so. The editor’s job is to allow the author’s voice to emerge without coloring it, or replacing it with her own. An editor who wants to write should be a writer.”
“Editors are seen as the arbiters of taste, style, and usage, but good editors cannot be arbitrary. They must be flexible. Essentially what this means is that they listen: They never fail to take into account an author’s feelings.”