Monday, July 24, 2006

So what IS style?

What is style?

After all the reading and writing we’ve done this semester, from examining the development of the craft and industry of writing, to exploring grammar and usage in prose; from studying the interplay of word and picture through the ages, to how they inter-relate in the virtual world of the internet, I think I have found a few overarching themes in regards to “style”.

First, irregardless of the media one communicates in, simplicity is the signature style of a master, elaborateness the sign of the amateur. In order to express simply what one means to, one must have expert knowledge of the ideas to be expressed. By this great knowledge, the author will be able to edit out all superfluous material, and leave the idea unhindered by unrelated clutter. In text, the rule of simplicity is translated into a direct prose, rather than a wordy prose. In art, it is translated into choice of emphasis: a feeling, a color, an aspect. In web design simplicity translated into a minimum of flashy effects and sounds, and a focused navigational hierarchy.

Second, a work of expression should be created with the audience in mind. Writing should be at an appropriate register for the audience. It should convey ideas in a way that the audience will relate to. A website should do the same, and should anticipate the expectations and needs of the audience (i.e. expectation: logo at top left; need: how to join).

Finally, attainment of good style, in any thing, takes revision. Quality work is rarely attained in a first draft. By reviewing, sharing, rethinking, and rewriting, a piece is fine tuned and polished for consumption.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Most important Rule of Good Web Style

In my opinion, the most important rule of web style is user-centered design. A site that does not connect with its intended audience is a failure. The website must be designed not only to visually appeal to its audience, but also to function in ways the audience expects, to meet their needs as efficiently as possible.

Lynch and Horton advocate for user-centered design. They state that the goal of any website “is to provide for the needs of all [] potential users, adapting Web technology to their expectations and never requiring readers to conform to an interface that places unnecessary obstacles in their paths”. The key here is that the web page must conform to the readers not the readers to the webpage – or to the webpage’s author.

Key elements in user-centered design revolve around navigational issues and prioritization of information. First, the readers need to be sure of where they are within the site. Helpful design elements include graphic themes, as well as consistent page format and icons. Second, the designer must apply foresight in placing the most important information up-front. The organization of information should also be tested against real user experience so that it can be maximized.

By putting the user’s needs first in the design of a web page, the usefulness of the page is maximized and it becomes more valuable both to the audience and to the designer.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Web Style

Web style is a blossoming industry. As in paper style, there are many, many “experts” who want to sell their opinion of appropriate web site “grammar”. Just as in paper style, there are a lot of hacks and sticklers out there who’s rules one should ignore. Two great guides are Spider Pro’s “100 Dos and Don’ts of Web Design” and Lynch and Horton's Web Style Guide. Spider Pro gives a very succinct list of prescriptive rules. Lynch and Horton’s online book is geared toward a corporate audience but is useful for beginners as well. I also enjoy Ben Hunts Web Design from Scratch.

The sources listed above all apply some of the rules of “paper style” to web site creation. The most universal rule in either paper or web composition is “keep it simple”. Other rules that stuck out to me as sharing a common thread with popular grammarians were:

  1. Plan ahead – Lynch and Horton emphasize that one should decide on focus, write and polish content, and make outlines of the whole site before creating the actual web page. This is similar to William’s views which focus on drafting texts.
  2. Be Reader focused – Hunt says, “Every single element and decision must help users achieve their goals and support the site's goals.” This also mirors Williams views, that the writing should serve the reader.
  3. Don’t Take my Word for It – SpiderPro’s last rule is echoed by both William’s and Strunk and White’s paper style guides.

The big difference between “paper style” and “web style” is the application of the rules. Everyone says “keep it simple,” they mean very different things. Strunk meant don’t be wordy. In web style, keep it simple means much more. It means write simply, in a simple font, on a neutral background, with a minimum of flashy graphics. Planning ahead in paper composition means organizing ones thoughts in an outline or a web. In web page composition it means planning layout, content, and graphics. Basically, style rules meant for paper compositions apply much more broadly in web site composition.

Friday, June 30, 2006

McCloud 2: Small Steps

I read Laurel McDevitt's post. She chose to analyze the comic "Small Steps" by Raina Telgemeier. She was most impressed by the simplicity of Telgemeier's compositions - the absence of color, background detail, and text. Laurel echoes the sentiments of Scott McCloud, champion of comics as high art. In his book, Understanding Comics, McCloud says "The mastery of any medium using minimal elements has long been considered a noble aspiration" (83). I agree that the simplicity of the scene adds to its effectiveness. I would point out that the absence of text in the comic conveys much about the story. By excluding text, Telgemeier adds silence to the late night scene. As a child, the weight of silence in a house at night is oppresive. Any dialogue would have completely changed the feel of the story. This silence might have also been heightened with text, for example, a clock might have struck 3, or te stairs might have creaked.

I personally was more interested in Telgemeier's use of line. She uses such friendly round lines. McCloud devotes all of chapter five to a discussion of line in conveying emotion. He says "Gentle curves and open lines...convey a feeling of whimsy, youth and innocence" (126). There is no better way to describe Telgemeier's style. The only difference is that she uses deep shading to convey a sense of mystery.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

On McCloud and Comics

McCloud’s Understanding Comics

I have very mixed feelings about McClouds book. While I have always liked reading the Sunday comics, I have never been interested in comic books. Understanding Comics gave me a much greater appreciation for the art form. On the other hand, the comics style of McCloud’s book drove me insane. I have mentioned before that I read a lot. I normally read very quickly with good retention. Understanding Comics was impossible for me to read at anywhere near the pace I am used to. The panels forced me to slow down, and the number of pictures forced me to read – look – read again. This frustrated me to the point that I could not focus on the content at all and had to start over.
Two observations on my experience with McClouds book – First, a reflective observation: I was absolutely stunned by my response to the book. I was an art major for the first 1 ½ years of my college career. I am still an enthusiastic amateur artist (I switched majors in part because I didn’t want my style influenced by university art programs). One of my favorite mediums is pen and ink and my favorite subject is the human face. I have always considered myself a visual person. I know I am not auditory. I learned from this experience that I am not nearly the visual thinker that I believed myself to be. I want text-or visual-not both. The second observation is related to education: If comics style presentation of academic material forced me to pay so much closer attention, it might be a groundbreaking tool for k-12 education. Why aren’t our kids’ textbooks in this form? Has such a form been tested on k-12 students?

The New Adventures of Queen Victoria

I chose Pab Sungenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria, because it is completely different from what I expect from comics. This strip is taken from a series of Queen Victoria exploring Alice’s Wonderland (a la Lewis Caroll) In the strip I chose, Queen Vic is asking the Caterpillar about Wonderland. He answers, “Let me tell you about…the Matrix” First, the whole comic consists of borrowed illustrations and photographic images-the author is not a cartoonist but a collage artist. This makes me question what it is to be a cartoonist, or rather a comics artist. It also brings up issues of copyright. Sungenis borrows illustrations from Alice in Wonderland and inserts a photo of Queen Victoria. Then, for the punch line, she switches to the Matrix. Her ideas are definitely original, but only the words are her own. Second, there is almost no action in the strip. The first three panels are identical except for the text. Queen Victoria is static throughout the strip. The scene-to-scene change at the end is the only visual difference. I liked the juxtaposition of such radically different elements – the caterpillar illustration, Queen Vic set into it, different mediums, but very culturally homogenous, then the unexpected jolt into modernity with the reference to the Matrix. We see a little bit of closure going on in the first three panels. Queen Victoria is almost totally obscured by the caterpillars mushroom, but because she is static, and in the foreground in the fourth panel, we imagine the rest of her is really there. For Pab Sungenis’s comics or other "undiscorvered" comics go to

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Blog Blog

I loved looking through everyone’s blogs. I have to say, I am disappointed by all the drop-outs, but I am equally impressed by the survivors. Rob definitely takes the prize for most sociable tone and funny page – the image of sparring authors was priceless. Each person has such a different tone or style, if you will, even after being ground through the mill of Strunk, White, Williams and Krause.
In regards to our views on the texts, however, we feel pretty much the same. We all find both books to be helpful. Everyone says that the authors definitely address different audiences. S&W is for novice writers while Williams is for professionals. Everyone also said that S&W would be excellent as a pocket reference, a refresher or a quick reminder before writing, while Williams would be better for revision.
We also all seem to agree that S&W is more user friendly. Both Cheryl and Julie commented on the physical characteristics of the book – its size and weight, its headings and spacing. I hadn’t thought of applying Manguel and Baron to Strunk and White and I found the reference to be a very clever one.
The authors’ tones also affected the way we percieved the texts. I love Cheryl’s comment, “If Strunk and White's style is authoritarian, Williams' style is authoritative.” Who else but a Mom would think of it? Aah, motherhood. I’m not sure I agree with the comparison – S&W do make it a point (though anything over two words in their text could be considered a point) that the rules should be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, I understand what she means – she is talking about their difference in tone between S&W’s rules vs. Williams techniques. Laurel McDevitt reported being turned off towards Style because “Williams took pot shots at Strunk & White”. I felt the same way – I didn’t start really “listening” until the third chapter.
One area where we seemed to differ a little bit was on how we percieved Strunk. I and others liked his tone – that of a teacher to his students, rather than to a wider audience. Others were offended by his prescriptive, hard-nosed, style. I wonder if our reception of S&W has much to do with our cultural backgrounds?

Here are some bits I enjoyed so much I had to include them even though they don’t fit into my discussion.
“I find myself not using an active voice when I don’t know what to say. It’s like marking time by writing.
” - Laurel McDevitt
“Strunk and White fine tune the elements, Williams overhauls” - Cheryl Ryan
“I would love to sit down with Strunk and strike up a casual conversation with him in a bar setting where he is most vulnerable, then see how many mis-uses he may spew out of his oral cavity.” - Rob Mons

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Williams v. Strunk and White

The closer to the end of Williams’s book I got, the more I liked it. Williams carries through what he claims that he will do in the introduction - he informs the reader, step by step, how to write clear, concise prose. He moves from words – nominalizations, to sentences – agents, actions, and stress, to paragraphs – topic and thematic strands. And then he reverses his order and talks about sentence length, simile and metaphor, and finally, the smallest of the small – usage (or is it in the stress position?)

My favorite part of Strunk and White was their discussion of the paragraph. Where S&W balance this concept on the head of a pin, Williams sees heavenly bodies and charts constellations. His whole book, minus the last chapter, focuses on the paragraph. Everything, from the passive verbs to the thematic strings serves to make the paragraph flow. S&W are also concerned with how text flows, but, like every other “element” they consider, S&W just touch on the basics, give an example or two, and move on. I would consider reading S&W before writing a paper, and then revising with Williams.

This is perhaps the second critical difference between S&W and Williams: S&W are concerned with how to write – how to “bring down the bird of thought as it flashes by” (S&W 69) while Williams is interested in refining that first draft and making it worthy of the reader. For this reason, S&W give short, direct, memorable rules: the powder and the ammunition; when you’re done with S&W you have your game. Williams tools are for skinning, cleaning, and seasoning the meat of your prose; when you’ve finished with Williams you have a dish fit to serve at the table. In the first half of his book, Williams is concerned with cleaning away the fat and gristle, while the second, especially the sections on length and elegance he is concerned with seasoning the prose.

Over all, I still hold to my first impressions. S&W write to the student, the beginning writer, or the teacher of those two groups. Elements is as paired down as possible so that only the basic elements of the most critical ideas are included. As a secondary teacher, I could make my grammar curriculum based on the sections of S&W even at the seventh grade level. S&W is a book for anyone who wants to write. Williams serves a more advanced audience. Williams’s readers are writers already, who want to improve their writing. For that audience, Williams is clear, straight forward, and concise. I could never use Williams with my seventh graders.

Since I feel like I’m comparing apples to oranges here, I’m uncomfortable with making judgments of worth. Both books serve their purpose well. Both inform the reader as to how to write more clearly to serve reader. Elements has withstood the test of time. It remains to be seen if Style will enjoy the same longevity.