Talk about style

A while ago, I complained that an instruction book I was reading then had no creativity in its narrative. That was a pretty big accusation, considering the author of that book is Seth Godin and it was—needless to say—a bestseller. Although the book had wonderful advice, a pleasing layout with big headings and small, bite-sized paragraphs, even a bunch of clever wordplay strewn across multiple pages, the fact remains that “Tribes, We Need You to Lead Us” was a dull read for me.

I had then dismissed most guide books as dull as Seth Godin’s. I knew they were helpful and worthy in their advice, but I also realised that those aren’t books I’d read for pleasure. They were more like necessary evils you’d have to tolerate because they, in their own weird way, improve your life. And that’s how I had concluded my experience with instructional books that had blurbs saying, “Must read for every marketer” or “best financial advice for the average tax payer.”

It was with almost the same mentality and expectation that I picked up “Style — Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph M. Williams. It was a part of my reading library at work and I picked that particular book because it had big fonts and reasonable spacing in the margins. Oh, and also because it was nice to caress the thick, white paper between my fingers. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, I expected nothing. That’s why the book caught me unawares spreading within me inexplicable joy, leaving me flicking through the pages to read more.

For the first time in a long time, a how-to-like textbook gripped my interest. It was about writing, and the author explains, with examples, why and how some sentences work and some don’t. Throughout the book, the author speaks of clarity and good sentence structure, which is all classroom stuff; to take it a notch further, however, he also speaks about the ethics of writing and how sometimes, you have to sacrifice clarity and concision because there’s more at stake.

Every teacher teaching writing would say clarity and brevity is the soul of a good piece. It’s important to empathise with the reader, giving them what they need to know, being mindful of their time. Williams agrees, and explains how to write for the reader, but in 10 lessons, 2 two epilogues, an appendix, and a glossary, he also admits that he can’t say how to identify the best way to write. There are no absolute rules to writing because it depends on the purpose, on the audience, on the writer themselves. And unlike so many books and articles that advise on writing, this book addresses that reality of writing.

In addition to the juicy meat of the book, Williams introduces quotations throughout. Every lesson, every chapter, begins with at least three famous sayings relating to the subject he’s about to discuss. To my surprise, some of those words were so witty I laughed out loud. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done that reading a how-to book.

All these were great things about the book. But the greatest thing was the writing itself. It’s not easy to write about writing in a way that readers, who are writers themselves, understand the writer’s intent—a feat that Williams has managed to achieve in an almost effortless way. That’s the actual lure of the book. Anyone who’s written anything knows that easy reading is damn hard writing, and the fact that this book is super easy to read says a lot about Williams as a writer, his process, and his dedication to revise and rethink every first instinct. For me, perhaps that’s the success this book has garnered.

It’s a glorious read for anyone interested in writing. However, for random readers looking to increase their “read” library in Goodreads, it’s just another instructional book.

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