Writing, with Style: An Examination of The Sense of Style
You expected to be sad in the fall.
Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees, and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light.
But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.
— Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s description of Paris’s changing of the seasons from A Moveable Feast — his memoir as a struggling young writer in the city in the 1920s — needs a little explaining. And that’s the point. It is clear and oozes with concrete imagery. It flows effortlessly, speaking true to us decades later.
Yet, with a seemingly endless stream of instant messages, low-value listicles and ephemeral media — you know the types — what writing from today will last even a year from now?
What words will be lost to the barrage of bits? And what will be elevated into the pantheon of the greats?
The Importance of Style
In his 2014 book on the craft of writing itself, Sense of Style, linguist Steven Pinker champions the importance of style, particularly during our information flooded era. He proposes that writing with style serves three central purposes:
1) To Clarify Meaning
To ensure the message the writer shares is the same one the reader interprets. As readers, we’re constantly torn for our attention. If a passage is difficult to follow, we will quickly lose interest and turn our attention elsewhere.
2) To Establish Authority
If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy within their prose, they will better trust that the writer has authority on the topic they are communicating.
3) To Create Beauty
Stylish writing, he argues, is elegant in and of itself. To quote Pinker himself:
To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.
To reap the benefits of stylish writing in our own prose, Pinker suggests the use of Classic Style (as opposed to Plain or Emotive styles, both covered below). In Classic style, clarity is upheld above all else. Its goal is to have the reader see certain truths, which the writing has made self-evident.
Pinker, on classic style:
It simulates a scenario where the writer has noticed something in the world that the reader has not yet noticed, and so the writer places the reader in a position to notice that thing and the reader can see it with their own eyes.
This isn’t to say that Classic style is the definitive best style. Each style has its time and place. Yet broadly speaking, Classic style is best used by journalists, reviewers and novelists to bring their reader’s attention to certain truths in the world.
We could chart each of the three writing styles on a spectrum against the cliche writing adage, show don’t tell.
On the objective (i.e., telling) end, Plain style tells the reader absolute truths about the world and the people in it. This style can be criticised as cold or impersonal, yet is commonly used to good effect in instructional manuals or on tax returns. For example:
Use a black or blue pen only.
Clearly, write responses within the boxes provided.
Romantic (Emotive) Style
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Romantic style which seeks to show — rather than dictate to — readers the writer’s subjective reality. This style commonly uses evocative, emotional rhetoric, and is often used by preachers and politicians playing to their audience’s emotions.
For example, here’s Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (emphasis mine):
Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.
Somewhere between the two extremes, lies Classic style. As already discussed, it aims to guide (i.e., show rather than tell) the readers attention to certain truths, with as little distraction as possible.
For example, here’s Margaret Atwood in The Penelopiad:
Water does not resist. Water flows… Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
Comparing the Three Styles
Using each of the styles, let’s look at three ways of describing the same scene. For example, say we want to convey to our reader the concept that Ivan finds Louise attractive. Here’s how each of the three styles might convey the same ‘truth’.
Ivan was infatuated with Louise. He wished she would notice him.
As Lousie walked down the corridor, Ivan felt weak at the knees. He turned, looking longingly at her as she walked straight past him, laughing with her friends.
Everything about Louise captivated Ivan, but most of all it was her hair. The way it bounced as she strutted across the room. The way it shimmered in the sunlight. She was a heavenly being sent from above, unaware that mere mortals like he even existed.
How Do We Improve Our Own Writing Style?
1) Read More
The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader… Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.
— Steven Pinker
Pinker’s advice here is to read the greats. And, as you do, stop to consider their choice of words. Examine the flow of their prose. See how they evoke imagery and ideas within you, the reader.
All the best writers echo the same advice: Read. Read. Read.
2) Be Concrete
Ambiguous prose = ambiguous ideas.
Provide your readers with clear, unambiguous prose. The concepts that you as a writer wish to convey should be the same ones evoked in the reader.
Don’t hedge your bets with weak modifiers such as ‘very’ or ‘really’. Including them weakens the point you are trying to make. For example, compare “This a very important point. Really try to pay attention to it.” with “This is important. Pay attention.”
Say what you need to say with authority. Your reader’s attention is a limited resource. Don’t squander it by having them second-guess your intent.
3) Keep It Simple
Consider the ideas Kurt Vonnegut expresses here in slaughterhouse five:
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
Even if you have no knowledge of the novel or the context of those words, they still resonate untold meaning. In fact, Vonnegut once professed:
Simplicity of language is not only reputable but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth.”
Echoing Steven King’s famous advice to Kill Your Darlings, Vonnegut goes even further. If the words aren’t pulling their weight, cut them.
If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
4) Treat Your Writing as a Window to the World
As writers, we must communicate with readers different from us. In different cities, and in different countries. And should our work endure, across different decades? Here’s Pinker again:
The key to good style … is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.
This starts with a writer who knows the truths they wish to convey — the argument they wish to support, the fictional world they wish to share.
The writing then acts as a — mostly transparent — window through which the reader is shown the particular world-views of the writer.
5) Give It Time
As writers, we must strive for continual improvement. We must push ourselves to write more clearly, to express our ideas more powerfully with each passing day.
It seems fitting to let Pinker have the final word:
Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.