Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Style Guide

by CWK

I. Developing Your Own Style

1) Read the paper aloud.

This will help you develop a good ear. Writing that sounds good reads well.

2) Write in English, simple and plain.

i.e., [1] don’t try to fashion elaborate, flashy, literary sounding sentences.

In writing, simplicity is beauty.

John Calvin, “I always studied to be simple.”

Strunk: "After he has learned, by the guidance (of the rules), to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature."

3) Strive to be clear.

Assume that your reader does not understand you. Imagine yourself as a sheep herder, and your reader as a lost lamb. It is your job to shepherd your reader to clarity.

4) Revise often, but not early.

It is beneficial to indulge in creative freedom on the first draft of a work. Get your ideas, good and bad, on paper. Then once you have devised, you can go on and revise. When revising, it is best to have a learned enemy read and critique your work.

III. Basic Composition Skills

Begin by carefully reading your assignment, or carefully considering your goal. Is this a reflection paper? An essay? A research paper? 

This is where students generally go wrong.  Ask your professor for clarification if you don’t understand the assignment. Next, do your research and/or reading. I suggest reading with pen in hand and taking detailed notes to better facilitate critical engagement. Read thoughtfully and slowly, or as Bacon put it, “Read to weigh and consider.”

1) Thesis Statements.

You are ready to begin the writing phase of your work after you have read your assignment and done your research. The first step in the writing phase is to formulate a thesis. The thesis may change as your work progresses. This is to be expected. A thesis statement is: a concise summary of the contents of your paper, the heart and soul of your paper, the main idea(s) you want to communicate.

Ex. The Reformers valued expository preaching as a consequence of their commitment to the Bible as God’s Word.

2) Outlines.

You would do well to use an outline, even when writing a shorter paper. The discipline of outlining your ideas before starting will save you in both time and frustration. An outline serves as the skeleton of your work. It should present, in brief form, the whole of your paper.

Here is an outline of a paper about outlining,

Topic: How to Write an Outline
                I. Preliminary Work
                                a. Read Your Assignment Carefully
                                b. Develop a rough thesis statement
                                b. Make a list of topics/ideas to cover
                                c. Organize this list into themes
                                d. Organize themes into a logical flow
                                e. Revise thesis statement if necessary

                II. The Marks of A Good Outline
a. Concise
b. Clear
c. Organized logically
d. Visually Suggestive
                *Differentiate Points/Subpoints with Numerals and Letters

3) Paragraphs

a. Organize your ideas into paragraphs.

Each paragraph should represent one, and only one, main idea. Start your paper with an opening paragraph which contains an introduction and your thesis statement. End your paper with a concluding paragraph which wraps things up, summarizes, and restates your thesis.

b. Topic Sentences

Start each paragraph with a topic sentence; end each paragraph with a concluding sentence referring back to, and/or summarizing, the topic of the paragraph.

ex. I became a fan of soccer last year through a series of coincidences. I went to England for a week last summer. There, I saw devotion to a sport that exceeded all my experience... So, all these random events conspired to make me an avid soccer fan.

Strunk: “Again, the object is to aid the reader. The practice here recommended enables him to discover the purpose of each paragraph as he begins to read it, and to retain the purpose in mind as he ends it. For this reason, the most generally useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning; the succeeding sentences explain or establish or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.”

c. Make each speech a single paragraph – no matter how short the speech.

Tom took Karen’s hand, knelt, and said softly, “Will you marry me?”
                “Yes,” Karen replied.
                Tom looked up and struggled to find more words, but he could only smile. He leapt into the air, nearly dropped the ring into the lake.

d. Avoid long paragraphs. Also, avoid overly short paragraphs.

Strunk, “Enormous blocks of material look formidable to the reader. He has a certain reluctance to tackle them; he can lose his way in them... But remember, too, that firing of many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting... Moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing.”[2]

4. Use the active voice.

The active voice is more direct and vigorous than the passive:

I cherish Jane Austen’s portrait of courtship.

This is better than,

Jane Austen’s portrait of courtship is cherished by me.

Strunk, “This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.”[3]

Other examples of the power of the active voice (from Strunk):

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

Dead leaves covered the ground.

The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.

Failing health compelled him to leave college.

3. Put statements in positive form.

Make definite, certain, sharp assertions. Avoid halting, tame, hesitating, wimpy language.

Compare the following,

She did not know what to do.

She was clueless.

Strunk: “This example shows the weakness of the word “not.” Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; he wishes to be told what is. Hence, as a rule, it is better to express a negative in positive form.”

not honest


not important


Note: another advantage of putting statements in positive form is the savings of words that result. Remember, vigorous writing is concise. Compare the following,

not an insignificant point

relevant (a saving of 3 words)

4. Omit needless words.

Strunk: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Many expressions in common use violate this principle; compare the following,


the question as to whether/ better: whether (or the question whether)

there is no doubt but that/ better: no doubt (or doubtless)

used for fuel purposes/ better: used for fuel

he is a man who/ better: he

in a hasty manner/ better: hastily

this is a subject which/ better: this subject

His story is a strange one/ better: His story is strange.

Note: the expression “the fact that” should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

owing to the fact that/ better to say: since (because)

in spite of the fact that/ better to say: though (although)

call your attention to the fact that: better to say: remind you (notify you)

I was unaware of the fact that/ better to say: I did not know

Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous.

His brother, who is a member of the same firm

His brother, a member of the same firm

Trafalgar, which was Nelson's last battle

Trafalgar, Nelson's last battle

5. Use appropriate punctuation (period, comma, colon, semicolon, exclamation points, question marks, dashes, etc.)

a. Avoid ellipsis... because it only demonstrates that you wrote your paper at the last minute ... without thinking about punctuation...

b. Avoid emoticons (:0, :), etc.). Emoticons belie a lack of professionalism. These will make
 astute readers : (.

c. Use ! and ? sparingly. Double and tripling punctuation is inappropriate in academia!

If you use exclamation points all the time, you will leave your reader with the impression that you are shouting! Perhaps, you are over-stimulated?! Instead, let words do the work! Calm down! Write clearly! See what I mean??! Especially avoid double and triple exclamation points!! One will do!!!

d. Use semicolons (;) to join two closely related independent clauses.

Jan was the consummate extrovert; she felt most at home when she was away from home.

e. Use colons (:)
                * to introduce a definition
                                ex. Justification: an act of God’s free grace, whereby he pardons all our sin and  accepts us as righteous in his sight.
                * to separate title and subtitle
                                ex. The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grace and Grammar
* to introduce a list
                ex. You will need: pen, paper, a jacket, and a mongoose.

f. Avoid comma-splices
Incorrect: I went home, I fed the cat.
Correct: I went home, and I fed the cat.
Also correct: I went home. I fed the cat.

g. Use dashes to signal abrupt shifts in tone, or breaks in thought.

Lewis Thomas, “The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you're about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he's back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.

h. For quotes: place the comma before quotation marks at the beginning, and within quotation marks at the end.

ex. The author states, “Reformed theology encourages engaged citizenship,” and I agree.

6. Avoid clich├ęs/ hackneyed (worn out) phrases

Especially the following,

definitely (This is definitely my favorite book. I will definitely use this in my life).




the fact of the matter

I was struck by

love (I love my dog, this book, that shirt, that place, those shoes, my friends, etc)

very. Use this word sparingly. If you want to emphasize, use strong words. Get in the habit of using your thesaurus. Compare,

He was very cold.

He was freezing.

He is very serious.

He is in dead earnest.

II. Basic Grammar

1) Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's – even if the final consonant is s.

ex. Charles's friends love Strauss’s music.

2) In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,

America, England, and Canada are the lands of my ancestry.


America, England and Canada are the lands of my ancestry.

3) Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

ex. The great writers, and lots of confused readers, would all agree.

4) Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause (an independent clause is a phrase that can stand on its own as a complete sentence).

ex. Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of the 19th century, and he was an exceptional pastor.

5) Do not join independent clauses by a comma (comma-splice). (See avoid comma splices above).

If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.


Lewis’s fiction is an example of sanctified imagination, he is always seeking to communicate grand truths.


Lewis’s fiction is the best example sanctified imagination; he is always seeking to communicate grand truths.

It is equally correct to write the above as two sentences, and replace semicolons with periods.

Lewis’s fiction is an example of sanctified imagination. He is always seeking to communicate grand truths.

6) Do not break sentences in two with periods (fragments).
Avoid sentence like this,

I went home. To see if I left the oven on.

7) Do not spare periods and spoils sentences (run-on sentences).
Note: this is the most frequent grammatical error among seminarians.

Incorrect: I am not finished I am just getting started.
Correct: I am not finished. I am just getting started.

7) Promote peace and harmony between subjects and verbs.
i.e. Make sure subjects and verbs agree.

Incorrect: The readings is complicated.
Correct: The reading is complicated.
Also correct: The readings are complicated.

Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis

Lewis responded to a child's letter requesting advice on becoming a better writer, [4]

1.             Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.
2.             Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them.
3.             Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."
4.             In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers "Please will you do my job for me.'
5.             Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

More Lewis Advice on Writing, [5]

1.             Turn off the Radio.
2.             Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
3.             Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You shd. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
4.             Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about . . .)
5.             Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn't, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know -- the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn't the same in his.
6.             When you give up a bit of work don't (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.
7.             Don't use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.
8.             Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.

[1] i.e. (from latin id est) = in other words. An abbreviation frequently misused as a way of continuing long and meandering sentences.
[2] Strunk and White, Elements of Style, 17.
[3] Ibid., 18. Note on a Note. Use Ibid. (short for latin ibedem, in the same place) when the preceding footnote cites the same reference. If the reference is on the same page. do not restate the page.
[4] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, 63-65.
[5] C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, 291-292.

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