Why is it that some books have you eagerly turning the pages after your bedtime and other books work like sleeping pills? Partly, it’s style. Why is William Faulkner revered by many English majors and Mad magazine by other people? Style. Is it everything?
“Style” is one of the elements of strong writing, akin to “voice,” but different. As Shelly Lowenkopf explains in The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, “Style is the physical fingerprint of the writer, demonstrated by such traits as length of sentence, cadence, length of paragraph, use of adjectives and adverbs,” and more.
Lowenkopf goes onto say, “The difference between style and voice has its origins in the author’s intent in writing the work; voice comes from an emotional and/or philosophical atmosphere and is a direct reflection of the author’s attitude. Style is more a mechanical function, relating to the way the author uses tense or where she places commas and other punctuation.”
Style is probably one of the elements your tenth-grade English teacher tried to bonk you on the head with, and no matter how many times you’ve read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, you may not feel as if you’ve found your “voice” (which your style reflects.)
Some people think style is inherent, as if writing ability were like blue or brown eyes. Rather, it is something you work at.
Style is not a mathematics table that can be learned through memorization. I do, however, have suggestions and ideas to help shape style and improve your writing. What follows are a few of the things I’ve learned about style.
1) You are writing to a real person or real people. My late mentor, Bob Lee (who co-wrote, with Jerome Lawrence, great plays such as Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame), always reminded me, “You have an audience. What is it that the audience is supposed to feel?”
In other words, writing prose to yourself is one thing, but if you are writing to or for other people, then knowing—or at least guessing at—how other people might react is important.
You learn this through experience. The more you write, the more feedback you get, whether it’s from your teachers (“vague; wordy”); your business correspondents (“I don’t understand what you mean by ‘general supply’”); or audiences seeing your play or screenplay (laughter, tears, applause, or lack thereof). As you edit—but not necessarily as you write—imagine your audience reacting to what you wrote. My friend E. Van Lowe, who used to write for many TV sitcoms including The Cosby Show, tells me as he’s writing his young adult novels (The Falling Angels Saga) that, “I know where my audience is going to laugh—I can see it. I know where they’ll be surprised. It’s fun writing this way.”
2) Match your style to the form. A personal essay in an application to a college should be different in style from a letter to your mother. A summation in a murder defense case should differ from a memo to your company’s president. Some people, however, don’t vary their styles much. (“Dear Son: I experienced what one might call self-satisfaction at your stalwart performance this Winter solstice when I attended your theatrical recital. Never have I encountered a more syncopated and coordinated dancing candy cane by a kindergartener....”)
People who are fond of big words seem to sprinkle them in everything they write. I’ve spoken to magazine editors who feel too many people write like academics—they use big words and a dry style, and “it’s boring,” they say.
Simply put: A chunk of the population can use this suggestion: “Loosen up.”
On the other hand, I had a recent freshman composition class that was too loose at first. Many of the writers were simply chatty, as if the only style they had was based on speech. Their writing reflected that. “Just cause we gotta be free is what this author is saying. Ya can’t trust the pigs. We gotta believe that. That’s what I think.” For them, I spent time on the structure of an essay, and moved them toward correct spelling and point of view. My goal wasn’t to erase personality—personality is what sings in all writing—but to have them show more control and consistency in their writing.
3) Be concise. The more I write, the more I consciously try for brevity, and the more I admire Hemingway’s ability to do so. In an article in The New Yorker, Joan Didion wrote that Hemingway “in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think.... This was a man to whom words mattered. He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them.”
To make something look simple, such as the opening four sentences to A Farewell to Arms, took concentration, effort, and rewriting.
Some people’s writing style comes off as dull, often because of too much meaningless detail. (“And on the fifth day of our vacation, we stopped first at an In-N-Out Burger where I had a Combo Number One and Mary ate a Combo Number Two...”) Cut out the dull. Try to see if a long paragraph can be written more succinctly. A Persian proverb puts brevity in perspective: “Epigrams succeed where epics fail.”
4) Read your work aloud to get a better sense of rhythm and style. This is especially helpful if you want a more loose or casual style. If you don’t struggle for air as you read your sentences, then they’re probably not too long.
In a fabulous writing book, Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin, which I use for my creative writing classes, the novelist Virginia Woolf is quoted. “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm,” Woolf wrote in a letter. “Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand, here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in mind, long before it makes words to fit it....”
Reading aloud will give you a better sense of the rhythm you have or don’t have. How you create that rhythm is another matter.
I’ll offer more advice in Part Two, tomorrow.
(Click here for Part Two.)
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