Concise and readable prose

Vincent Cheung excerpts (paragraphing mine; also not a blanket-endorsement of Cheung’s theological writings):

The ability to clearly communicate ideas is one of the most important skills of an effective minister. When it comes to producing books and articles, this means the ability to write in concise and readable prose. It can make a world of difference to the readers. So, I would like to tell you about the things that have helped me as I learned to write, and to offer some suggestions for you.

…Many books that are well-written are not worth reading, and many books that are worth reading are not well-written. Theology would not seem so tedious and difficult to people if not for the complicated sentence structures, infrequent paragraph divisions, confusing table of contents, lack of organization and symmetry, wordiness, and other characteristics exhibited by many theological works.

Good writing has a lot to do with clear thinking. You might think that you have a firm grasp of certain ideas in your mind until you must put them into words, and then you discover that your thinking has been in reality unclear and imprecise, and that it often consisted of little more than a nebulous intuition or feeling.

When you put your thinking into words and sentences, you cannot assume that the reader already knows what you are thinking, even if he could mentally fill in some of the blanks that you have left unfilled. But if you are introducing a new line of thinking or even making an argument to the reader, you will have to describe each step of the reasoning process and write down the premises that you would usually assume, and then provide justification for them. Sometimes, you might even need to abandon an argument, or at least reduce the conclusion to a mere opinion, because even though you thought you were correct about a given claim, once you are writing it out for another to read, you discover that there is in fact no rational justification for it.

The ideal, of course, is to totally eliminate such a disparity between private thinking and public expression, so that there is nothing that you need to state, clarify, and prove to your readers that you have not already done for yourself when you first reached a certain conclusion on a topic. Frequent writing can help you lessen this disparity, even if you can never eliminate it.

Thus writing helps you develop clear and precise thinking, and the writing process also exposes to you the strengths and weaknesses in your belief system. This in turn also means that as your thinking becomes more clear and precise, and as you learn to accurately attach words to ideas, and to express them in an orderly and systematic manner, your prose will become more readable to people.

…Other than what I have mentioned so far, the most important thing that I have done in learning to write readable prose was to study The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Every writer must get this book, and if you have never read it, you must buy it now…It is short, inexpensive, available in almost every bookstore, and reading it might be THE most important thing that you will ever do to improve your writing, especially when it comes to producing non-fiction works, including essays, speeches, and so forth.

Now, I don’t consistently practice the rules taught in that book in everything that I write (avoid the passive voice, eliminate unnecessary adverbs, etc.), and this is certainly one reason why my writing is not better than it is. However, it is not because I don’t want to faithfully follow those rules, but it is because I am unable to implement all of them as I write, and then I almost always only have time to proofread my materials once before they are released. If I have the time, I would definitely proofread everything that I write several more times and make the appropriate changes according to the Strunk and White rules. In fact, once I revised one of my books and shaved off twenty whole pages from the manuscript. The text did not suffer any damage, but rather became more concise and forceful.

Then, other than Strunk and White, I also recommend How to be Your Own Best Editor by Barry Tarshis. It is a guide to help you revise your writing using rules similar to those taught in The Elements of Style.

I have a small mountain of writing guides, but if you want to spend your time writing rather than reading writing guides, then the two already suggested will give you a great start. But if you want more, then consider the following (preferred titles marked by “*”).

This is not a very complete or organized list, since I am writing it almost entirely from memory, based on the books that I have purchased and reviewed. So, your favorite title might not be listed, and you might want to look into other available options before making your selections.

*Patricia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me

Patricia T. O’Connor, Woe is I

Patricia T. O’Connor, Your Send Me

Bill Walsh, Lapsing Into a Comma

Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style

*Joseph M. Williams, Style

Elizabeth Danziger, Get to the Point!

Maryann V. Piotrowski, Effective Business Writing

*Jan Venolia, Write Right!

*Jan Venolia, Rewrite Right!

*William Brohaugh, Write Tight

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

*Rudolf Flesch, The Classic Guide to Better Writing

*A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing

*Anthony J. Graybosch, The Philosophy Student Writer’s Manual

*Zachary P. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers

Marlene Bagnull, Write His Answer

*Bruce Ross-Larson, Edit Yourself

Bruce Ross-Larson, Stunning Sentences

Bruce Ross-Larson, Powerful Paragraphs

*Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style