The Scent of Style
We all write with the same words available in dictionaries but what makes writing styles so different, the words put together in sentences go through sea change used by different writers? Cooks work with often the same recipes but we have no trouble identifying the food as Aunt Mary’s.
One of the reasons style is so unique could be related to what John Galsworthy noted in his preface to one of his novels, Fraternity: “A novelist, however observant of type and sensitive to the shades of character, does little but describe and dissect that which lies within himself.” Octavio Paz, on poetry: “Poetry is not what words say but what is said between them, that which appears fleetingly in pauses and silences.”
The perfume or cologne we wear combines with our skin in a chemical change that makes the perfume ours alone. Words are transformed not through chemical change but one that inevitably happens when a writer selects and arranges them as a means of communication.
When we think of style guides we may think of the famous The Elements of Style originally written in 1918 by Cornell University professor, William Strunk Jr. for his students as a textbook. Many of us have used it in composition classes as required reading. This famous guide and includes such topics as: Elementary Rules of Usage; Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, Words Commonly Misspelled.
I purchased a paperback copy of The Elements of Style recently, a 105 page fourth edition with foreword by Roger Angell, the stepson of E.B. White who wrote the introduction for the 1978 edition. E.B. White, a student of William Strunk Jr. writes of his professor’s emphasis on brevity and zeal for clear writing. A 20 page chapter, An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders), mentions the mystery of style and the lack of an exact definition of it. My edition includes a glossary by Robert DeYanni beginning with: adjectival modifier, and ending with voice. It includes a 9 page index.
Another style guide around almost as long, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, is also called A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. It is a style guide to British English usage that has gone through many reprints and editions, and also known for its wit. H.W. Fowler wrote: “Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.” The King’s English, was written before A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and is also on the Internet as one of the great books on Bartleby.com with the same search options as The Elements of Style.
Three widely used style guides in writing research papers are: The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), Modern Language Association (MLA), and the American Psychological Association (APA). Information on each is also available on the Internet. Each publisher has their own preferences and it is wise to find out early on what style they prefer.
A great deal has been written about Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner styles—two vastly different styles so famous and unique that annual contests award prizes for the best parodies. Mark Twain’s famous rules of writing style in an essay written in 1895, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, are still very relevant. The essay is available on the Internet under the essay title.
Our Own Styles
Fortunately we can hone our style no matter in what genre we wish to communicate. The more we write, the more skill we develop to say what we really mean without being distracted by the many facets of the mechanics involved such as whether to use a colon or semicolon, if a space should be used with dashes, if effect or affect is the right word choice.
Words are servants to our thoughts and if what we want to say is not clear to ourselves, it will not be clear in our writing. It has taken me years to realize this and it was only after seeing a reproduction of a page from John Galsworthy’s handwritten manuscript of The Patrician how few changes were actually made– that my favorite author had arranged things in his mind before putting words on paper with an ink pen. He didn’t change about every word like I did trying to get down what I was trying to say as I went along. I wonder what his style would have been with a computer and yet I read many modern day authors still write by hand; the medium computer or pen isn’t what is important.
If we are a teacher, we know that in explaining something we learn probably as much as we teach others and what we did know undergoes transformation. After it is clear in our own minds, words must be selected to fit—not too casual or too formal, mix sneakers with formal wear; the best words, the best way to share with the reader. A good style has a lot to do with fitting our words to our audience: the question of who we write for is often asked writers and the answers I’ve read of course vary with the writer.
Style conveys the writer in the very first words: like meeting someone for the first time, we grasp many aspects at once in those important first impressions. We are curious about the inner workings of other fellow creatures. I still read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to ferret out the character of the illusive detective just like Dr. Watson who shared 221B Baker Street with him. The scarcity of personal information reminds me of Hemingway’s famous lines In Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
Every writer must find whether poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or creative nonfiction fits their style of communicating the best. It depends a great deal on what we want to say as well as the mediums we select how effective we are in reaching readers; success is often a long process learning what works for us. In my own case, I never wrote poetry till after several books of nonfiction because I thought poetry was out of reach. Now I find that switching back and forth from nonfiction, poetry, short stories, essays, helps me to be more aware of words and style—we think differently and use words differently when writing in a certain genre. It is a challenge that revitalizes, requiring discipline, a self-awareness if the time is right or if it would be best to wait a few days till we are more rested so we can have the focus necessary to switch.
There are too many parts of style to cover here (as there are many parts to a personality) but here’s a few that may be tackled one at a time. My very selections reflect a style and another writer writing about style would come up with their own scents so to speak. Each writer must filter many elements like the ones below and use them in their own way that is comfortable, their own voice.
Some Components of Style
Conciseness: Being concise takes effort but it is well worth the effort. Mark Twain observed, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Think of words as time and money. Omit any that are not working for you. Cut to the chase.
Worn phrases: “It was clear as a bell to John that he had bitten off more than he could chew.” Phrases we often hear lose their ability to grab attention.
Sentences that lack variety and are choppy: “The famous tree was on a hill. The hill was near
town. The town was small.”
Show not tell: We have heard it before no but it is basic. Instead of: “His mother was always telling him what to do” write: “Mail this letter now before you take the dog for a walk,” John’s mother said.
Mix simple, compound, complex sentences: A simple sentence is: The squirrel was in the tree. A compound sentence is: The squirrel was in the tree but a bird was watching it. A complex sentence is: The squirrel was in the tree while the bird was watching it. The compound and complex sentences shows different relationships with the use of a conjunction or adverb.
Figurative language: some of the most common include—metaphor, simile, synedoche, metonymy, pun, hyperbole, personification.
Style is your scent as a writer; make it work for you.