W=Williams (Feb 24)

… puts the pieces together

Hunter knew Williams’ rules . . . and how to break them // Getty Images

It’s time for the nitty gritty.  After all, we are almost at the end of our journey.

So you have turned each thought or action into its own sentence.  You have turned sentences into paragraphs.  Now, how do you arrange them?

Many writing experts have weighed in, but few as lucidly as Joseph Williams.  To me, Williams is a man whose work has cracked the code of clear prose.  Though careful to call each part of his code a ‘tip’ or ‘rule’ (and not an absolute), Williams lays down ten principles on writing.

Meaning is all.  If you can communicate a thought with your audience in a single word, then that’s the word you want to use.  But Williams teaches writing; thus, he is more interested in how ideas move through prose (a formal e-mail, a report, a piece of fiction or non-fiction, or an essay).  Moreover, Williams’ goal is your goal: to write clearly.

To start with, the writer organizes his thinking about how to write a sentence from beginning to end.  The elements of a sentence that are fixed are in blue while the elements that change are in red.  From top to bottom, Williams diagrams sentences in terms of topic, the flow of information, grammar, and character:

SENTENCE:   Beginning           – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  > End

TOPIC (fix a readers focus!!) 
OLD INFO (known / mentioned previously)NEW INFO

Your takeaway from Williams is this: all these levels work together – all the time.  Another takeaway comes from these five ideas on writing each sentence with clarity:

A) Have a clear actor (subject) and action  . . . if there’s a time or sequence along with an actor / action, state it in five or six words at the beginning of the sentence unless you want to stress it – then move it to the end.

B) Keep the actor (your subject) and the action (your verb) close together

C) Turn abstract nouns (nominalizations like development) into concrete verbs (actions like develop)

D) Use high-level vocabulary . . . as long as your readers understand the word or phrase.  If you are not sure about this, give your readers a definition!

E) Tell stories (what happens first, then second, then third, etc.) through characters (choose the right subject!) and action (choose the best verb!).

Here’s what else I like: Williams is not dogmatic about these ideas.  As proof, he suggests when the subject of a sentence might be a nominalization (or perhaps it or there) and not a person – put the part you want to stress at the end of the sentence, which people remember the most.

It all comes back to meaning.

Paragraphs, too, should spotlight meaning.  Just as each sentence has a topic (subject) and comment (what the subject does), a paragraph should have an issue (the matter at hand) and a discussion (what you have to say about that matter).  Each paragraph usually has the issue at the beginning.  The other place for the issue?  The end. 

At the same time, an artful writer has more than just topics that connect sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph.  Along with topics, the writing will have themes.  The actions of each human subject will tie together as a theme.  Time is a common theme in writing.  This pulls the reader through your prose as well. 

This example comes from Williams’ own book:

Clarks PRACTICE OF CAREFULLY MAPPING every {fossil} made it possible to FOLLOW the evolutionary development of various types through time.  Beautiful sequences of (antelopes, giraffes, and elephants) were OBTAINED; {new species} evolving out of old and appearing in younger strata.  In short, evolution was taking place before the eyes of the Omo survivors, and they could time it.  The finest examples of the process were in several {lines of pigs}, which had been common at Omo and had developed rapidly.  UNSNARLING the {pig} story WAS TURNED OVER to paleontologist Basil Cooke.  He PRODUCED family trees for {pigs} whose {various types} WERE SO ACCURATELY DATEDthat {pigs} themselves became measuring sticks that COULD BE APPLIED to {fossils} of questionable age in other places that had {similar pigs}.

These are not just repeated words; they are conceptually related words.  Some examples:

  1.  types of fossils {curly brackets}: fossil, antelopes, giraffes, pigs
  2. actions of the surveyors (CAPS): map, follow, obtain, unsnarl, produce, date, apply
  3. actions of species (underline) : evolve, appear
  4. time (italics) : new, old, younger, age

So this brings us back to the beginning.  What is your topic?  What do you want to say about it?  And how do you feel toward your topic?

Figure out those three things and pick up a pen!

LEARN: Read this passage from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.  Note how simple the language is – each sentence is a single thought.  Can you find the themes and topics? 

USE: Take a recent piece of your writing and rewrite so that the topic, information flow, grammar, and narrative are all in step according to Williams’ rules.  Does it clear up how to arrange your writing?  What did you have to change in the piece for this exercise? 


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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