Williams Helps Technical Writers Revise

Joseph Williams Style

Joseph M. Williams. 2003. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In our shrinking world, misunderstandings are common. Misunderstanding can arise from being unlearned, uncultured, or untimely; it can arise due to presumptions about gender, race, or class; it can arise because of lack of sleep, lack of tact, or lack of a sufficient coffee. But there is no excuse for being misunderstood because of a poorly chosen word![1] After all, the world is full of so many good stylebooks to choose from. (Or, is it—from which to choose?)[2]


Joseph William’s book, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, stands out for his interest in complex sentences and he generally aims at answering three questions:

  1. What is it in a sentence that makes readers judge writing as they do?
  2. How can we diagnose our own prose to anticipate their judgments?
  3. How can we revise a sentence so that readers will think better of it? (ix)

Good Writing is Understood

Notice William’s focus on the reader. Iimplicitly, he says that the mark of good writing is that it can be understood.[3] He then goes on to focus not on writing, but on revision where it is helpful to understand three distinctions:

  1. Among a few grammatical terms, like subject, verb, noun, active, passive, clause, preposition, and coordination…
  2. Between topic and stress…
  3. Among five unfamiliar terms: nominalization, metadiscourse, resumptive modifier, summative modifier, and free modifier (x).

Admittedly, I got point one, but points two and three escaped me until I had read his book. William’s advises us to read this book slowly (x) and understand his interest in managing the content of complex sentences.

Complex Sentences Pose Special Problem

Complex sentences are particular problem in technical writing where the logical flow, balance, and structure can be daunting. This daunting nature arises because a complex sentence consists of an independent clause (a simple sentence) and one or more subordinate clauses (224), and highly technical subjects require a lot of complex sentences. How do the roles of the different parts of the sentence relate to one another and how do multiple complex sentences hang together in mirroring the complexity of technical subjects without adding additional linguistic complexity? A paragraph composed of such complex sentences is common in technical writing. The rules for managing this complexity are not necessarily obvious or often discussed by most stylebook authors.

Williams starts by discussing clear, simple sentence construction and gradually adding additional complexity.

What does the reader expect, Williams asks?

The answer is that in a fairy tale, the subject is a character and the action is a verb (34-39). The opposite of this clear structure is excessive use of nominalizations—verbs and adjectives masquerading as nouns (38)—which often move writing away from clear and active sentences. As you add complexity to the simple sentence, maintain clarity by keeping subject and verb (and object) close together. Following this prescription, Williams argues that your sentences will be more concrete, concise, coherent, and clearer (46-47).


As Williams dives deeper into complexity, he defines a term that he refers to as metadiscourse, which refers to at least four things:

  1. The writer’s thinking and direction.
  2. The writer’s degree of certainty.
  3. Directions to the reader.
  4. Logical connections in the writing itself (66).

Other authors might call this the author’s voice or narrator.

Cohesion and Coherence

While metadiscourse offers structure to a passage, the sentences themselves hang together (or not) depending on their own organization. Williams distinguishes two ways this can happen:  cohesion and coherence. Cohesion refers to “how each sentence ends and the next one begins” (78) while coherence refers to how well “all the sentences in a passage cumulatively begin” (79). Williams sees cohesion advanced by beginning a sentence with familiar points and words and ending with new or lengthy material (81). Coherence has more to do with “a sense of the whole” (83). Other authors may employ different words for these same two concepts.

Williams’ concept of cohesion naturally leads into a discussion of a complex sentence topic and stress. Topic has to do with the subject of the sentence, usually the front of the sentence. Articulate stress (or emphasis) at the end of a sentence (99). The topic is familiar and links to the previous sentence while the stress is often new material. Being sensitive to these concepts not only enhances cohesion, but it also helps the author organize sentences around key points.

Sentence Priorities

Williams’ advice starts to bear fruit at this point. Less important material should never be placed at the beginning or the end of a sentence where it would receive greater scrutiny. This insight allows Williams to then offer a wide range of strategies for shifting more important material into parts of the sentence where appropriate emphasis (front or back) can be obtained. For example, a passive verb allows you to flip the subject and object which may be helpful in maintaining continuity with the previous or following sentence. Likewise, a “there” construction can used to shift an idea to the end of the sentence where it would receive more stress (100-102). This is highly actionable advice in editing a confusing paragraph.


Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace targets experienced, technical nonfiction students and writers looking for a good stylebook. He writes in an accessible style and offers many examples of complex paragraphs written more concisely.


[1] Or maybe not! Sometimes I think that when Jean- Paul Sartre wrote his play, No Exit, he must have had in mind a writer caught in perpetuity between two editors, one a retired English teacher and the other a fastidious journalist, unable to agree on the rules for writing clear English prose. Jean-Paul Sartre. No Exit and Three Other Plays. (New York: Alfred A Knopf; Vintage Books, 1955).

[2] The old rule—“do not end a sentence with a preposition”—is now considered overly formal (21).

[3] http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2008/02/28/joseph-m-williams-professor-emeritus-english-and-linguistics-1933-2008

Williams Helps Technical Writers Revise

Also see:

Brooks Structures Story, Part 1 

Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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