Style (3rd edition, 1984)

This is a book on how to write.  It develops two premises: that style is outlook and that outlook is discovered through the act of writing itself.

You don't begin to write with a complete message or experience already imagined, which is then to be wrapped in language as a means of sending it to your readers.  Writing isn't so much communication as creation.  In a real sense, you don't have an outlook on anything without first having written on it.  This outlook comes into being through the dozens of tests, choices, and unexpected chances which turn up as you write on some engaging topic; and most writers agree that the final creation isn't anything you could have precisely anticipated when you first set pen to paper.

This can advance the learning of composition in these ways:

1.  You may see writing not as a troublesome matter of encoding what you already know but as the very way you come to know.

2.  You may then see all the issues of vocabulary, sentence structure, audience, etc., not as pitfalls to be skirted but as ways to expand your powers of discovery.

3.  You may see that rewriting, usually shirked at reckless cost, is not busywork but the extension and final thrust of your discovery.

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From a person's writing you can determine that writer's way of taking hold of things.  Consider two college men who are each writing home about a history test.

Writer A: "Had an American History little exam last week (73 multiple-choice questions).  Another kid and I shared Top Dog (70 out of 73).  It wasn't very difficult, needless to say.  As I told Jamie, like in spelling, I may not know how to spell a word, but I know when a word is mis-spelled; this makes multiple choice not real difficult for me."

 

Writer B: "Well, I couldn't tell you whether the Spanish-American War lasted (A) 2 years, (B) 1 year, (C) 6 month, or (D) 10 weeks--and a lot of other ABCD things like that--so I fouled up another of Prof. Harriman's cheapie objective exams in American History.  When the hell is that old alphabet-machine going to ask something halfway vital, like whether the U.S. should have been in that war?  I passed barely."

Presumably neither student thought he was describing his "educational outlook."  Both were simply reporting a bit of academic news.  But look back over their reports.  What would you say about their feel for college studies?

You may be struck by Writer A's sense of American History test as a competitive game.  It's a game he is modestly good at.  He watches the points like a hawk.  He is interested in the flair by which he "won."  But the subject matter of the test lies outside his focus.  It seems reasonable to guess that Writer A is score-oriented for the moment.

How does Writer B feel about the game aspect of the test?  He despises it!  ("Cheapie objective exam"; "old alphabet-machine").  Perhaps he's mad because he scored low, but then too he seems to find the game trivial.  From him you do learn about the content of the exam and about his own involvement with the ethics of war.  It seems reasonable to guess that Writer B is idea-oriented, at least more so than Writer A.

You can't use language without making choices (sometimes unconscious ones) of words, details, sequence, stress, and so forth--and those choices express your values, the experience to which you are most responsive, and your judgment of what really counts.  If you learn all that you have to choose from, your style can answer more sharply to your own nature.  Again, by expanding your command of possible choices you become aware of more in your experience itself.  Your style and your experience build into each other: that is why the development of style belongs near the center of a first-rate education.

What, then, are the elements which make up your style for any given piece of writing?  And how do they help you toward exactness of expression?  Dick goes on to identify, illustrate, and apply such elements as determined by:

Audience.  (For example, note the contrast between writing to your parents about a poor grade and writing to a buddy.)

Language.  (For example, note the difference between "I am disgusted with the rotten score" and "I am heartsick over the shameful score.")

The Larger Scale.  How longer pieces of writing involve careful working with such elements toward larger patterns of order.

If writing is one way to discover your outlook on a given subject, a complementary way is reading, to discover an author's outlook.  Suggestions are offered: to develop your own agenda when reading; to use re-reading just as one uses re-writing; to note what the reading does to one's own awareness.

Some forty readings then provide a wide range of topics and forms, to exercise your skills in responding to them.

   Copyright 2005-2009  by Richard M. Eastman.  All rights reserved.