What is Black and White and Stands Firmly on Three Legs?

Two important tomes have dominated the past few days and are likely to do so for many more to come. The first is my recently purchased  Sixteenth Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. The second is my, now cherished, Guide and Handbook for Writing by Erwin Griggs and David Webster (Temple University), copyrighted in 1963 by the American Book Company of New York. These two books are among the principle supports to be used to address the comments of the development editor, content editor and quality editor.

The form of grammar and style of one’s writing is expected to comply with The Chicago Manual of Style. While it is one of several authoritative style manuals in print, it is an industry standard and was cited in materials provided to me by the publishing house I contracted. The Guide and Handbook for Writing (Griggs and Webster),  found its way into my life as an essential text in an Introductory English class at Temple University. Sadly, speaking for myself, the Griggs and Webster text was never appreciated nor exploited as it should have been, that is until now. This is a doubly tragic example of poor scholarship, since David H. Webster who is one of the authors was the professor for that class. Fortunately, as a hoarder of books that might prove useful later in life, the Griggs and Webster volume was still in my personal library.

The answer to the riddle at the head of this post is a book; which is essentially black and white and stands on three legs called clarity, fullness and sincerity. Griggs and Webster list these as the three virtues of writing. Even though a written work is structurally and grammatically sound according to a style manual, it is likely to lack appeal without these three elements. Fullness and sincerity flow entirely from the writer. Most writer’s handbooks address these two elements through examples and practice through exercises. When one works on these skills without the benefit of an instructor, the examples are useful but the exercises are not very helpful without correction and discussion.

Achieving fullness in any written work is a matter of balance between the number of words used to express an idea (usually within a paragraph) and the complexity of the language used. The writer has padded their work when too many words are used, and ideas presented may be obscured . The writing is thin and ideas incompletely expressed when too few words are used. The writer needs to take the average reading level of his or her audience into account as well. The average reading level of a literate adult in the United States is somewhere in a range between the seventh and ninth grade. When one writes textbook material, the best advice is to write for a reader who is a grade below the grade in which the text is to be used. Applying that same maxim to a non-fiction work written for the general public, suggests that the complexity of language target a level less than the maximum reported. Although the interest factor holds a reader’s attention even if the language is challenging, when language is too complex a reader may shy away from the writing. Achieving sincerity is another matter, since a writer either is either sincere in their writing or not. Sincerity cannot be taught, it must just be present in the writing and come from the heart of the writer.

Of the three pillars of good writing, clarity remains dependent on grammar and structure but also depends on word choice. Rigorous application of the rules of style and form as specified in a good style manual should take care of structural clarity. Clarity related to word choice is achieved though using words that express the intended meaning. In an ideal world, every word a writer includes in his or her text supports the meaning of what is written, but that is easier said than done. Most individuals use words in everyday conversation based familiarity and common usage. However, looking a word up in the dictionary is very enlightening. One often finds that the actual definition of a word they use frequently has shades of meaning that are surprising. In written work, unless writing a dialogue or writing in dialect, the accuracy of using words based on their correct meaning is essential for clarity. A web-based support that is very useful in selecting the correct word for its intended meaning is the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus at www.visualthesaurus.com.

Good writing is structurally sound and grammatically correct. Great writing has both those characteristics and stands on the pillars of Fullness, Clarity, and Sincerity. Logical writing is another component of excellent writing. Reflections on logic in writing is my agenda for the next post. Until then . . .

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