It’s easy to write about rules of writing, because they are, well, rules, mostly of grammar. Codified in textbooks, they direct us with detailed specifics and examples of what to do and not do. They are the compilation of consistencies that assure that others will understand what we have written. Style goes beyond that, is considerably more subjective, and its constituent parts more ephemeral. It resides on the other side of the boundary that separates grammar from what we call usage.
Usage is the application of the rules of writing. Good usage gives your writing consistency and credibility. Style is what gives it uniqueness. Style should not be confused with voice, however, which is a step or two beyond style and occurs when an author’s style becomes so unique you can identify him or her after reading but a few sentences or paragraphs.
Unfortunately, inexperienced writers sometimes try to mimic some famous writer’s voice, when they should be investing their time to develop their own style—how they write with clarity. Put another way, and using an analogy, the “style” section in a Sunday newspaper focuses primarily on hair, nails, and clothing. That is surface stuff—in literature, a book’s cover. Applied to writing, style goes much deeper—into the text. It constitutes the underlying individualized application of the rules of the written word.
Placed on a continuum, at the one end would be such descriptors as weak, disorganized, chaotic, muddled, unclear. At the other end, the descriptors become more positive, e.g., clear, ideal, superb. A definitive definition of what constitutes style is hard to find. One I like refers to it as “the way in which a literary work is written; the devices an author uses to express her thoughts and convey the subject matter.”
Style has a lot to do with clarity. Author Mathew Arnold describes style as having something to say and saying it as clearly as you can. Kurt Vonnegut didn’t define the term as such but stated its importance: Write with style, he said, if for no other reason then out of respect for your readers.
Reading something written with style, leaves you with a satisfied feeling, like the one you have at then end of a really good meal, provided you didn’t overeat. Voice on the other hand has more to do with an individual writer’s distinctive tone—the character or attitude of their writing. Many readers can spot Hemmingway and Faulkner and distinguish the two by reading but a few sentences or paragraphs. Voice deals more with the ability to identify who wrote a piece by the way it is written. Style, on the other hand, deals more with how well something is written. You can have the former and lack the latter. Style is more something you achieve; voice something you construct.
Everyone serious about writing must cross the boundary between how they write and how they want to write—with style. Too many writers angst over style when they should be focused on the basic quality of their writing. Style is not the way to good writing; it’s the result.
As you become confident and more facile in your writing, a style will likely emerge. Once there is a commitment to the art and craft of writing, style develops from trial and error and the accumulation of experience. It’s derived from tidbits that collect and interlock and ultimately reach critical mass and you suddenly realize the quality of your writing has gotten measurably better. By quality I mean your choice of words and how you organize them and put them together—your diction, which is a key element of style. It has to do with how your words flow and the quality of the journey on which your words take your readers. It’s the kind of writing that when you reach the last few words you find yourself disappointed that your journey is over.
We could banter about definitions forever, so instead let’s look at a few examples. Gary Provost, in his smart little paperback 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, used paragraphs “ONE” and “TWO” to distinguish style:
There wasn’t any noise at six A.M., and nobody was up yet. The wind was about the way you’d want it, and everything was pretty much okay. If you got up and took a look out the window, you could tell that summer was beginning.
It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Following is the opening paragraph of James Hurst’s “The Scarlet Ibis:”
“It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree. The flower garden was stained with rotting brown magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox. The five o’clocks by the chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. The last graveyard flowers were blooming, and their smell drifted across the cotton field and through every room of our house, speaking softly the names of our dead.”
While you ponder what makes any one of the above paragraphs better or more effective than the others, consider E.B. White’s description of style in The Elements of Style:
“Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries . . . There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
White’s words sound and feel familiar because you have no doubt pondered the question of style in regards to your own writing, probably at the end each effort. Style is the greatest challenge to a writer. Unlike learning and applying rules, your style develops after you have stumbled around, bumped into walls, and made endless edits and revisions. Then suddenly there you are, with a product that flows and has clarity. It’s only then you realize what Mr. White meant when he said style is “an increment in writing.”
When we speak of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style, Mr. White wrote, “we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper,” and the reason you don’t learn style from rules, White continued, is that despite that all writing is communication, “creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.”
Mr. White is telling us that developing style is developing one’s self. To have a style, a writer must not merely practice her art and craft but must become the art and craft; being immersed in it, not floating around upon its surface. The increment of writing to which Mr. White referred is the level of that immersion a writer achieves.
How does it feel as you develop style? Great, and it gets better with each little and accumulated epiphany collected over time as you struggle to pick and choose your words and organize them and put them together in sentences and paragraphs. You will sense your ascent through the increments of improvement as you become more facile and confident with your art and craft and reach that point where your words jump from the page with the force of a thrown brick rather than slide off and drip onto the floor. Style gives your words wings.
The skilled grammarian might well write a paragraph that correctly applies all the rules of grammar and is highly serviceable yet has the excitement of a paragraph from a lawnmower maintenance manual. No images or emotions fly off the pages to grab the reader and pull him or her into the story. It is the difference between a textbook that puts you to sleep and a novel that holds you in rapt attention far into the night.
Back to the three example paragraphs. The first reads much like raw reportage—a bare-bone descriptive synopsis. Perhaps the lead to a newspaper feature story. They could sound even newsier. For example:
“It was six A.M. No one had yet risen and the gentle breeze told you it was summer.”
“Everyone was still in bed at six A.M. It was the beginning of summer.”
The second example paragraph adds details and descriptions that touch a few additional senses, but it might have gone a bit too far in effort to make it sound casual. It’s vague in spots and misses opportunities to enhance the reader’s visual image and more fully touch the other senses. What is a wind with the proper touch? And does “the first real time of freedom and living” create an image or mood or emotion associated with the first morning of summer? Where is the description of the morning?
In the first twenty-five words of the paragraph from “The Scarlet Ibis,” we know exactly the time of year and that something meaningful has occurred, marked by the arrival of the ibis—a seaside bird so far from home. It opens with the seasons on the cusp and injects references to the smells and their sources. Its visual descriptions paint a scene in Technicolor rather than in shades of gray. The references to magnolia petals and the other flowers and the smell of cotton wafting across the heated fields tell us we’re in the South during summer. You can almost feel the oppressive lack of movement and the heat. Hurst has not just painted a picture with his visual references, but added an olfactory dynamic with words like “rank” and the “smell” of the raveyard flowers. We don’t know if things are peaceful or merely lazy and quiet, but you get the sense that something is lurking nearby and you want to read the next paragraphs.
Hurst’s addition of small, specific details in just the right concentration liberates our senses and enables each reader not just to paint the scene, but be there. He has created a sense of place, set the stage upon which his actors/characters will play.
Were you to re-read the three sample paragraphs in chronological order, you would see how the addition of detail engages more of the senses. That is what style does. Engages the senses.
I find another distinction between the paragraphs. Hurst’s is simply alluring because it hints of a mysterious history that the reader might get to visit. You are hooked as soon as that fragrant breeze crosses that cotton field and invites you to follow. Hurst’s words reach out and pull you into the scene, and thus, the story.
Hurst further locks his grip on you with his next graph: “It’s strange that all this is still so clear to me, now that that summer has long since fled and time has had its way.”
Tell me more. Tell me more. Tell me more.
Note that the three paragraphs could serve equally as examples to distinguish the concepts of show versus tell.
What accounts for style? According to The Elements of Style, there are twenty-one “reminders” for a writer thinking about style to keep in mind. Some of them, like “Revise and Rewrite” might be associated more with structure than style, but then that is where you catch your missteps and the speed bumps that detract and slow the reader down and detracts from style.
At this point, my advice is to pop for a copy of The Elements of Style. In fact, go for the $25 hardbound edition by The Penguin Press (2005). With its artwork and clean format, it has the feel of a textbook rather than the crammed cheat sheet of the ubiquitous, undersized, paperback version. It also includes a wonderfully descriptive piece by veteran New Yorker writer Roger Angell, the stepson of E.B. White, the person who took Cornell professor William Strunk Jr.’s “little book,” as it was known, and polished it into the perennial guide carried by tens of thousands of college and university students since Strunk’s original back in 1919.
Of the twenty-one reminders I’m going to list those I feel best relate to the concept of style:
• Place yourself in the background – Strive to make your words, not you, important.
• Write in a way that comes naturally – We all imitate but by trying to find a way that “comes easily and naturally to you” assures you will find and develop your personal style.
• Work from a suitable design – You don’t need a formal outline, but you need to know where to start and from that point where you are going and hope to take your reader. Don’t take you readers into the woods and get lost.
• Write with nouns and verbs – Another way of saying ease up on adjectives and adverbs. Find and use lush, descriptive words rather than cover ordinary ones in cloaks of adverbs and adjectives.
• Do not overwrite – “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” Young, inexperienced writers too often think loading up the sentence with adjectives and adverbs and clauses makes them sound erudite. Wrong! The extra weight causes them to fall flat.
• Avoid the use of qualifiers – Like adjectives and adverbs, terms such as rather, very, little and pretty are best when absent from your prose.
• Do not affect a breezy manner – This is what the authors of the For Dummies books do, almost to a man/woman. By the end of the first chapter you want to grab them by the collar and slam them against the wall and say, “Get to the frigging point, would ya!” Of course, you can’t do that to a stranger, but you can, and should, do it to yourself.
• Do not explain too much – Herein lies a tremendous challenge; what is too much? What Strunk and White were saying is avoid loading dialogue with explanatory verbs like “he consoled” and “she congratulated” and such. Research, by the way, shows that the verb “said” virtually disappears to readers. (There will be a separate blog on dialogue.)
• Make sure the reader knows who is speaking – You don’t need to have every piece of dialogue attached to attribution, but when you shift gears or change drivers, you need to let the reader know who’s doing the talking. If you have two characters in an active two-way dialogue, you don’t need “said” at the end of every line. But if there’s a chance for confusion, supply attribution.
• Avoid fancy words – Or as the sign I still have from my student editor days says: “Eschew obfuscation.”
• Do not use dialect unless your ear is good – Check with Mr. Dickens and Mr. Twain for what this entails
• Be clear – I cannot tell you how often on my third and fourth read of my own efforts I discover something to fix, or tweak. Do not treat editing as a chore. Learn from it. It will help make your first drafts better over time.
• And for the cherry on the icing: Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
Bottom line: It’s not the rules that create style, but how you use them to make your writing take flight. All good pilots use check lists.