Some words on style

Ben Yagoda’s book The Sound on the Page is an antidote to all of the pedestrian writing guides that plague our craft. The book is about recognizing and appreciating the unique styles that good writers cultivate, with some tips for recognizing and cultivating your own style.

The book begins with a definition of style as a repeated mannerism that can be detected in writer’s work. The mannerism may be in sentence length or structure, in word choice and repetition, in punctuation peculiarities, in the use of cliches, neologisms, and metaphor, and in dozens of other ways as well as a combination of them. What style is not, according to this book (and which I’ve agreed with since I started giving serious thought to this craft of ours) is what many call a writer’s voice. Voice is a quality of narrator, not the writer, and I’ve long thought that the narrator of a story ought to be considered a character (by the writer) as much as the characters about whom the story is told. Many writers and readers conflate the two terms, but I think it is helpful to make the distinction.

Yagoda’s book is filled with passages of material by a range of writers, all with distinctive styles. Often a selection from the writer’s work is followed by a lengthy musing by the writer on the qualities of its style and construction. Yagoda secured dozens of interviews with well known authors, and this book is packed with choice fruits from the likes of Dave Barry, Ann Beattie, Bill Bryson, Bebe Moore Campbell, Andrei Codrescu, Junot Diaz, Gish Jen, and plenty of other well known names from the remainder of the alphabet. The material is candid and insightful — perfect material for those who want to make a serious study of our craft.

The book talks of how a writer’s style is also partly a creation of the reader. A rushed or inattentive reader, for example, can miss much of the subtlety of a careful writer’s style. Yagoda invokes the character of the Pretty Good Reader, one who is reasonably educated and willing to read carefully, as a working standard for judging whether a writer’s style is successful or not.

Yagoda is not shy about slaying the darlings either. Strunk and White is taken down from its pedestal and examined, and in many ways it is found wanting. Many observers blame that venerable guide for the creation of bland writing, the so-called “middle style” that is more eviscerated than visceral. Nor does Papa Hemingway get spared the lash. His sparse, affectless style that so many writers have tried to emulate is looked on as the bloodless writing of a day gone by. Long, complicated, challenging sentences are relished, and a well chosen adverb gets praised rather than vilified.

This book also touches on an issue I’ve had with writing style. In some ways, a distinctive style can be a trap. Readers may find comfort in the familiarity of a given writer’s style, but where is the adventure? Where is the rigor and challenge? Even the writer may get tired of cranking out not-so-subtle variations of the same thing. I recently saw the styles of a certain horror writer and a certain legal writer as being called the equivalent of a McDonald’s meal. Quick, perhaps tasty, but not very nutritious.

Yagoda’s book The Sound on the Page should be in the library of everyone who is serious about writing or reading.

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