Thursday, 18 December 2014

On Style

Be clear. Be concise. Omit needless words.
This is the prevailing advice on writing these days. Avoid long sentences and figures of speech. Beware of adverbs. Go light on the exposition. Use modifiers sparingly. Show, don't tell. It is the notion that the author must not intrude, that writing must be like a clear window looking in on the story without being muddied up by flowery language, because language that draws attention to itself draws the reader out of the story. All this advice, however, must be understood as a reaction to bad writing, an attempt to mitigate the textual atrocities committed by fledgling writers.These guidelines promote competent writing, but not great writing, not the impressive and memorable writing that many of us like to read.

Elmore Leonard
Joseph Conrad
Elmore Leonard, in his rules of writing, preaches this invisibility of the author, and famously says, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." I get his meaning but surely he understands the irony of what he was saying there. Leonard adds, "Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say." He can't even bother to give us the actual quote, but I'm guessing it is when Conrad said, "Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality." I think this phrase can be interpreted several ways and not necessarily in the way that Leonard does. But it is another staggering irony that he would pick Conrad, an eloquent wordsmith, to try and illustrate his point about authors being invisible. Take for example, this line, picked at random from Heart of Darkness: ""The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver -- over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur." This certainly sounds like writing to me - beautiful writing. Far be it from me, a lowly unpublished writer to disagree with Leonard who has enjoyed such great success, but I do have to wonder if all authors are to be invisible, then what distinguishes one from another? Why should I read an Elmore Leonard novel (I've tried - didn't like it) over some other invisible author? In my mind, authors who attempt to hide, who hold back from being bold and expressive, write boring, unremarkable stories.

Two books on style have shaped my thinking on this subject: Style: An Anti-Textbook by Richard Lanham, and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. In the former, Lanham criticizes the imperative to "be clear." Style should be emphasized over clarity, he maintains. There is little distinction between the idea and the words used to express it. Words are not a window onto something else; it is the words themselves that matter. Lanham says, "People seldom write to be clear. They have designs on their fellow men. Pure prose is as rare as pure virtue, and for the same reasons." Writing is about being persuasive and effective, about achieving a purpose, not about being invisible. Lanham's ultimate message is that writing should be motivated by a sense of play rather than a sense of constraint.

In Building Great Sentences, Brooks Landon teaches us not to be afraid of long sentences. He quotes Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote, "Teachers trying to get school kids to write clearly, and journalists with their weird rules of writing, have filled a lot of heads with the notion that the only good sentence is a short sentence. This is true for convicted criminals." Landon shows how to build long and interesting sentences, starting with a base clause and adding modifiers and modifying phrases. He acknowledges that a writer must vary sentence length and that short sentences can also be effective. But his emphasis is on the long sentence. Two excellent quotes from educator John Erskine, author of the famous essay The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, are given as an argument against minimalist writing philosophies. "What you wish to say is found not in the noun," Erskine says, "but in what you add to qualify the noun...The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as a base on which meaning will rise. The modifier is the essential part of any sentence." And also, "When you write, you make a point not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding. When you put one word after another, your statement should be more precise the more you add. If the result is otherwise, you have added the wrong thing, or you have added more than was needed."

E.B. White
Landon and Lanham both stress that prose is about sound and rhythm, that it is always important to read aloud. E.B. White, who, along with the eminent professor, William Strunk, gave us the imperative to "omit needless words" in the Elements of Style, recognized the importance of sound as well. And he noted that we should be careful about deciding if words are indeed needless or not. He once wrote:

"It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter."

Even Elmore Leonard makes some concession to 'literary' writing, what he calls "hooptedoodle." That term he took from John Steinbeck, who titled chapters in his novel Sweet Thursday as "Hooptedoodle 1" and "Hooptedoodle 2." These, says Leonard, were warnings to the reader that the author was embarking on literary flights of fancy that had very little to do with the story and could easily be skipped. And despite Leonard's rule to leave out the things that will be skipped by readers, he says of Steinbeck's novel, "Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word."