But probably the biggest reason we write unclearly is ignorance."

--Joseph M. Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, p. 5


I am indebted to former and current students for many of these examples on this link. Thanks to the student who suggested he needed some extra help with passive writing.

Style Needs Defining

Style identifies you as a person in writing. You create a personality with your style. You may be sad; you may be happy. You may use big words; you may use small words. Your individuality shows through your style in writing. How do your words sound on paper? Tone is very much a part of style. How durable are your words? Do they last for generations to speak or read? We still remember "Four Score and 20 Years Ago" and "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do," because these words are durable. Think of the fine, simple writing of Mark Twain and Jack London. It is probably instructive, at this point, to review E.B. White's elements of style as he enunciated them in Strunk's book(The Elements of Style, 4th edition):

Students have recently asked me to talk about passive writing in a link. That situation does not represent a grammar or punctuation problem. Passive writing is considered a style question. As we think of passive writing and style, I am reminded again of the bible of style, Elements of Writing (now in fourth edition) by Strunk (Professor of English at Cornell) and White (writer for The New Yorker). E. B. White, you may remember, wrote the famous children's book, Charlotte's Web. Both of these men, before their untimely deaths, served as editors for major publications. They knew what constituted good style. They emphatically stated about the active voice in the latest edition of their book: "Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard."

Williams Helps Us Understand Value of Style

After visiting with a student a few semesters ago, I came to appreciate how students do not always understand style. Style is elusive; yet, it can be captured. Style is much more than readability. As Williams phrases the ideas in Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, style is much more than writing well. You have to possess the grace and clarity to make style work. Your words carry a message.

You have to think of the person when you are implementing style. Williams gives these guidelines for clarity in style:

  1. In your introduction, motivate readers with a problem they care about.
  2. Make your point clearly, usually at the end of that introduction.

    Notes: Williams could not give any more important subject than clarity. Too many business writing students forget we need to get to the point and make that point clearly. You do not want your reader asking: What is the meaning?

  3. In that point, introduce the important concepts in what follows.

    Notes: That brings up the point of bullets. Bullets are meant for at least one single point: Clarify the message. When you have to list 1, 2, and 3, your thinking moves from fuzzy to clearer.

  4. Make everything that follows relevant to your point.

    Notes: That sounds to me about the importance of the topic sentence and what follows. Ideas should have a coherence.

  5. Make it clear where each part/section begins and ends.
  6. Open each part/section with a short introductory segment.

    Notes: The reader should know where the writer is going. Prepare the reader for what follows.

  7. Put the point of each part/section at the end of that opening segment.
  8. Order parts in a way that makes clear and visible sense to your readers.
  9. Begin sentences constituting a passage with consistent topic/subjects.

    Notes: I listened recently a TV program about news writing. What struck me was Dave Barry's (the famous humorist for the The Miami Herald) comment about massaging his sentences several times before he finally publishes his feature article. Style involves work. Style involves massaging words until just the right message is conveyed.

  10. Create cohesive old-new links between sentences.
We should not leave Williams' thinking quite yet. I will comment on some of his well-chosen words about style. Williams is quite concerned about bewildering our readers. We need to organize complex ideas coherently (p. 1). I listened carefully to a student who didn't know Fitzgerald's (author of The Last Tycoon style. That got me to thinking about style related to reading and writing. You cannot appreciate other people's style until you do a great deal of wide reading. It doesn't matter whether reading is your favorite occupation, or you prefer fiction or non-fiction. You need to read to write stylistically well. You need to see how others put together sentences. If there is one message I would like to give beginning business writing students, it is to read widely.

Passive Writing Avoidance Requires Concentration

Let's now continue our discussion of passive writing. Passive writing means you do not activate the strongest verbs in your writing. You are content with verbs that "lay there" in the sentence. Such verbs usually mean forms of to be or have and had. Strunk and White tell us to use direct and vigorous writing. Practice becomes the best way to overcome passive writing. Therefore, let's try these exercises:

Her last option would be to accept her boyfriend's proposal.

You immediately notice in the previous sentence a form of "to be." We need to rewrite the sentence without becoming dependent on a passive verb in the future tense.