Style is the quality of a piece of writing that sets it apart from other pieces of writing that might otherwise be considered similar. Given the same subject matter and a directive to explain the same facts or tell a story whose details are substantively the same, different writers will set out to do the telling in different ways.
For example, one author might write very descriptively, using lots of imagery and adjectives. Another might favor a less ornate approach and simply convey the information. Often, authors for whom style is an important concern will adopt several styles. James Joyce wrote Ulysses in 18 very distinct styles. Another, perhaps more palatable, example can be found in the work of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote, in The Road, as follows:
When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.
The prose here is very simple, composed of words familiar to any speaker of English and sentence construction that’s almost childlike in the way he strings clauses together with ands. The prose in The Road is stark — almost barren — and it suits the subject matter quite well. Compare to this passage from McCarthy’s Suttree:
Peering down into the water where the morning sun fashioned wheels of light, coronets fanwise in which lay trapped each twig, each grain of sediment, long flakes and blades of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes where motes sifted and spun. A hand trails over the gunwale and he lies athwart the skiff, the toe of one sneaker plucking periodic dimples in the river with the boat’s slight cradling, drifting down beneath the bridge and slowly past the mudstained stanchions.
McCarthy’s prose here is a lot harder to wrap your head around. He uses a few words that may not be universally familiar, and his sentence structure is much more complex. Even the average word length and syllable count in the second passage outpace those of the first. I think of much of the prose of Suttree as lush, like some overgrown forest.
I don’t know that you can really enumerate all the elements that compose style, but here are a few:
- diction. What kind of words do you use? Big words or small words, Latinate or Anglo-Saxon, archaic (as in historical fiction) or modern?
- sentence structure. Do you write complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses or simple, direct sentences? Do you, like McCarthy in The Road, use lots of ands to piece your sentences together or do you clip them short with periods? Do your sentences require a lot of commas?
- imagery. Do you use sensory information in your writing or do you tend to write in abstractions?
- rhythm. Do you pay attention to how people speak and try to mimic speech rhythms in your writing? Do you instead try to write long, flowing sentences or staccato, forceful sentences? Or do you mix it up?
- repetition. Do you work to reduce repetition of words and phrase types or do you emphasize them for rhetorical (or musical, or other) purposes?
- flow. Do you write highly linear, logical prose in which one thought flows from another or do you skip about and tend to leave impressions rather than direct pathways toward your conclusions or stories?
Of course, different types of writing call for different styles. Journalists tend to keep their sentences and diction simple so that they can convey facts to as broad an audience as possible. Many writers of fiction write in somewhat more distinctive styles and often try to fit the style to the subject matter.
In many cases, style understandably takes a back seat to story. Writers of popular fiction are often more concerned with telling an engaging story than with writing in a distinct style; accordingly, many of these books are virtually indistinguishable from one another stylistically, however varied and rewarding their stories.
In blogging, I think style often maps fairly well to personality. If you tend to be a little reserved (as I do), your writing will tend to be somewhat formal, as mine here has been. My sentence structure has been subordinate and by and large complex (though hopefully not too much so), and the progression of ideas has been fairly linear rather than a disconnected spaghetti of thoughts. By contrast, if you generally write about your kids’ shenanigans or your weekend escapades, chances are pretty good that you’ll bring the formality down a notch, use slang and incomplete sentences, and write less linearly.
Style, then, is often a function of subject matter, audience, and rhetorical purpose. It’s related, in a way, to something known as the linguistic register, which describes how you speak differently in different company. Chances are that you speak to a job interviewer using different types of words and sentences than you use when speaking to your best friend (or your worst enemy). Where your rhetorical aims differ, so does your linguistic register, and so may your writing style.
So, what’s your style? Can you think of ways in which you write differently for different audiences? Should style matter to bloggers?