Full of Class: An Interview with Joseph Williams

Before we knew web design, before we knew what we did was called information architecture, we wrote. We sat patiently through grammar class, learning when the participle dangled and the sentence ran on. As we got older, we were handed down paperbacks gilded with lessons and rules about how to write. Guidelines from Strunk & White guided our high school prose.

But if we braved on, we may have encountered a different kind of grammatical attitude. Grammar rules dropped away; Strunk & White became idle on the bookshelf, and we were left to our own devices. And a new partner came forward: Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams, originally written as an advanced sequel to Strunk & White — a venerable one up. It’s intended to provide ten elegant strategies for rewriting and refining content.

But Style isn’t just for writers. Substitute the words “information architecture” for “writing” and watch the book transform into persuasive strategies to use in everyday IA work. If nothing else, this book can help you convince your boss to overcome the affliction of ignoring your audience.

When I visited one of the author’s lectures, I had the good fortune of meeting with Williams himself, who, having just published his ninth edition, revealed some of his thinking for the way things have changed since Edition One.

Liz Danzico: It’s been 25 years since you wrote the first edition. How has the premise for the 10 lessons (in fact, there are now 12) changed given the way we communicate with one another has transformed significantly?

Joseph Williams: Style is about reading more than it is about writing. I started out with the assumption that clarity didn’t inhere in the text — it was in the response of the reader. How do you predict, on the basis of what you see in the text, what the algorithm will be?

My own 1997 edition of Style, the fifth, is pretty beat up from years of reference. I’ve been hesitant to purchase a new edition for fear of losing the marginalia I’ve come to depend on.

A lot of it you cannot predict. Things like sentence rhythm is just so impressionist, you can’t find the algorithms. But a lot of other stuff you can.

Units of discourse of any size, no matter how big or how small, are most comprehensible when they fit two requirements: First, there is a very short framing element, followed by the longer, more complicated stuff. Second, that framing element has got to be as visual as you can make it — even when it’s the introduction to a whole document.

The problem you pose in that introduction has got to be visual because it structures everything that follows. If you can get that framing of the introduction clear and concrete in the mind of the reader, than the reader will do a lot of the work.

Danzico: This is particularly interesting today when the content is disintermediated from the author — there are more opportunities for the separation of author from content. Are there different guidelines for readers now?

Williams: Readers always have a responsibility to work as hard as they ought to work.

Readers are getting more and more irresponsible. They want it simpler and easier than the content deserves. There’s an ethics of reading that complements the ethics of writing: I’m going to work very hard to make this as clear as I can, but you have to work hard because maybe what I’m saying can’t be made as clear as you would like it to be. It’s as clear as it can be, but not as clear as the reader would like it to be. If that’s the case, you’ve got to make a contribution.

Danzico: And are there different ways that we have to write knowing that the reader is different?

Williams: Readers want three questions answered:

1. Why am I reading this?
2. How do I read it?
3. What should I take away from it?

Anybody can ask and answer those three questions, even when you’re writing a memo or a report. But it’s not necessarily the case that there has be some sort of visual highlighting or underlining of those answers. It’s just all text. Every sentence looks like every other sentence unless you emphasize it.

PowerPoint really illustrates it more than anything else. The resistance to things like PowerPoint (and boldface and all caps) comes from academics who think that the harder you work to understand something, the better you understand it. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

Danzico: You’re talking about the information-design elements of PowerPoint rather than intent or audience need.

If it takes an image, it takes an image. The problem is that PowerPoint turns that image into junk. There are too many tools in PowerPoint to make it look gaudy. It’s the Egyptian tool principle of PowerPoint: if there’s an empty space there, fill it up with something.

Danzico: Are people afraid of whitespace? Does writing have whitespace as well?

Williams: People get fearful of whitespace. We’re not using. Full it up. The more datapoints, the better. They couldn’t be more wrong. My guess is that communication in the future will involve more graphic devices and that will require people to use them.

It’s easy to abuse all the tools you have; it’s extraordinarily difficult to use them wisely.