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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
On Rhetoric and Style
May 12, 1998

Question 1:

It seems that there are people who "are writers," and there are people who "are not." When the "writer" writes something -- let it be a book, an interview, or a letter to his legendary author -- the reader can usually detect "Yep, he is a writer." You have referred to that as rhetorical ability. Is this ability learnable? If it is learnable, it is bound to be something you can improve, and I'd like to improve mine very much.

-- Submitted by Yaniv Aknin

OSC Replies:

I remember in my first conversation with a fellow grad student when I was (briefly) in the writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, this earnest young man said, "The first thing you have to do is develop a style. Until you have that, it doesn't matter what your story's about." This idea I found so appallingly ignorant that I wrote him off as a writer -- only to find that he was one of the most highly regarded of the students in the workshop, and that his idea was widely held among literary writers.

"Style" cannot be taught, or even learned, not directly. Well, let me qualify that: A good, distinctive style that is a pleasure to read cannot be taught or learned directly. However, a stilted, awkward, affected, intrusive, and annoyingly artificial style can be taught and learned, and I daresay that such style is the primary achievement of most creative writing programs in American universities. I wish I had a dollar for every writing class that has begun with the statement from the teacher, "I don't know much about plot, so in this course we're going to concentrate on style."

What is style? It's often thought of as a combination of several things, including:

  • word choice
  • phrasing
  • rhythm
  • point of view
  • level of penetration
  • attitude

The last three -- viewpoint, level of penetration, and attitude -- will vary from story to story. Furthermore, if the level of penetration is deep or if the story is told in first person, the word choice, phrasing, and rhythm should also depend on the character. But these aspects of "style" that vary with the particular story or character are more correctly referred to as "voice," and this is at least partly the result of conscious development by the author. I can't get very far in writing any story until I'm comfortable with the narrative voice, even if I don't understand it. For instance, in Hart's Hope I found myself directly addressing the reader -- a very old-fashioned style -- until, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, I realized that this wasn't just the "dear reader" rhetoric of pre-modern novelists; the whole book was being written by one of the characters in order to persuade another of the characters to make a particular choice at the end of the story. I didn't have to change anything I had written before when I realized whose voice the story was written in. Without understanding why, I had been writing in that character's voice all along.

But this is hardly what anyone would call my "style." An author's style is usually conceived as something that can be found in all his works, certain quirks or mannerisms that constantly show up no matter what voice has been developed for a particular story. Scholars have done computer analysis of word frequency, for instance, and found that authors have quite distinctive and individual "fingerprints" of vocabulary that show up in all large-enough samples of their work.

Certainly I have such quirks. For instance, I have a pronounced tendency to begin sentences and paragraphs with conjunctions. I didn't realize this, however, until it was pointed out to me by an editor, Andrew Offut, who regarded it as an annoying error. Indeed, it was annoying when done to excess -- and to excess was definitely how I did it! Thus I have a tendency, whenever I notice myself doing it, to recast sentences so they stand alone rather than being linked by conjunctions to the sentence before. The result is, not the elimination of the "conjunctivitis," but a slight toning-down, so it's less annoying. Without thinking about it, without meaning to, I still continue to do it. Why?

Again, it took someone else to point out a plausible reason. Michael Collings, a poet and scholar who has written about my work, pointed out that the Book of Mormon, whose English translation is written in a style deliberately reminiscent of the King James version of the Bible, is extravagant in its use of precisely the same rhetorical device. This book, which I first read as a child and have re-read dozens of times since (and on which I have based many plays and novels), has inserted itself into my style, most especially when I'm recounting a story that feels important to me. That is, I unconsciously become "scriptural" when recounting pivotal events.

Having tracked down a possible explanation of one aspect of my "style," let me point out the obvious: At no point in the development of this trait in my writing was I conscious of it, except to try to remove it or lessen its effects. It showed up in my writing because it is part of my innate use of language, arising from my early reading and my private hierarchy of levels of language formality and informality, intensity and casualness. I could not have planned such a stylistic quirk, and if I had, it would have been artificial and annoying -- or, shall I say, even more annoying.

Every writer -- no, every human being -- has a distinctive voice, which emerges when we speak and, with luck, when we write. In certain kinds of writing -- process writing, for instance, and legal writing, and highly formal discourse -- such quirkiness needs to be held under control, or even completely submerged. That is the only value of such guides as Elements of Style, which is often touted as a writer's guide to "good style," but which in fact is utterly useless to writers of fiction; no, worse than useless, because it tears the soul out of phrase, sentence, and paragraph, leaving only a lifeless skeleton behind.

Fiction writing is the opposite of these. The living voice of the individual author needs to be heard; the reader is hungry for it, and delights in the music of it. However, a contradictory force is also at work: The reader wants to be guided through the story so as to be able to follow what happens and why without confusion or uncertainty. The author's rhetoric, therefore, must be employed in such a way as to achieve the latter purpose -- clarity -- without killing the individuality of his style.

Unfortunately, what happens in many, perhaps most, creative writing courses is that the students are encouraged -- or encourage each other -- to exaggerate or artificially simulate the individual voice quite at the expense of clarity, so that the reader is left perplexed, confused, unguided through the mapless landscape of the fictional universe. All that the reader is given is a voice, but one without content, as if someone were singing in your ear in a language you didn't understand. Very pretty, but after a while you start longing for some content.

Or maybe it's not so pretty. Because the "style" that intrudes is rarely the natural voice of a living person. Usually it's an affected, artificial style, chosen in imitation of other writers or invented in order to call attention to the writer at the expense of the story. Thus fiction, instead of being a storytelling medium, is transformed into a karaoke bar, where the entertainment consists of songs we've heard a thousand times, presented solely in order for singers to show off their imitations of other people's voices.

Is there nothing you can do, then, to enhance your own style, to improve it? Why, of course there is! But, paradoxically, you don't do it by working on your style.

In writing classes that I've taught over the years, I often get students who are victims of bad writing classes, whose "style" bears all the earmarks of too much effort to be "stylish." The result is invariably impenetrable prose; sentences that don't flow into paragraphs; awkward, confusing storytelling so you can barely tell what's happening or why. The temptation for the writing teacher is to say, "Your style is horrible! I can't make sense of this paragraph! Go back and do it over and make it read more smoothly!"

This, of course, is the worst thing you could say to such a writer. For the problem is that the writer is already thinking too much about the language he's writing. We've all had the experience of doing a physical process that is familiar to us -- riding a bike or throwing a ball -- and then, suddenly, we begin to analyze what we're doing, and in that moment we start doing it noticeably worse. The intrusion of our conscious mind into the process makes us clumsy. We have to slow down; our reflexes were doing a much better job, more quickly.

So instead of telling these stylistically crippled students to concentrate more on their manner of writing, I force them to stop thinking about writing at all. In a trick I learned from Algis Budrys, I make them write, not stories, but notes about stories on three-by-five cards. "Don't write scenes, don't write the story," I tell them. "Just jot down what happens and why, as simply and clearly as possible. No dialogue! No description! Just what happens and why." Sometimes I have to repeat the assignment, especially the mantra "what happens and why," many times before the student finally stops trying to "write well" and instead merely writes it down.

Here's what happens: These problem writers, without exception, write better, clearer, and more stylistically interesting prose when they are not trying to write well. When their focus is on the story, and on helping the reader understand the plain tale, plainly told, their style improves dramatically and becomes far more interesting and individual than it ever was when they were trying to follow some teacher's or writer's instruction or (shudder!) example.

(So radical is the improvement that even spelling improves -- for as often as not, serious spelling problems arise when students are thinking about spelling as they write. Think about it: Anyone who reads regularly has all the correct spellings stored somewhere in memory, and those correct spellings are more likely to emerge when you're not thinking about spelling than when you are. However, you're more likely to make homophone mistakes when you're not thinking about it -- their for there is one of my common ones -- so you still need to copy edit.)

Your natural style is already present in the language you use when you speak freely and fearlessly. That is the "style" you want to have show up in your work. Let other people figure out what it is -- you aren't even thinking about it.

What you are thinking about is clarity -- communicating clearly with the audience. But that communication must also include persuasion -- you must persuade the reader to believe in your fictional characters and the world they move through, and also to care about what happens to people who, after all, don't even exist. The choice of language to achieve these ends is rhetoric, not style, and there is much to be learned about rhetoric. There are strategies and tactics, devices that work in some circumstances and not in others. If you must think about language, think about how better to achieve the goal of communicating clearly and persuasively with your readers.

This is the opposite, in some ways, of trying to create a "style." Instead of concentrating on yourself -- how can I make people notice what a wonderfully stylish writer I am? -- you are concentrating on the reader -- how can I most effectively get the events of this story into the reader's living memory? The more you write (and the more other people read and respond to your writing, revealing to you the places where they become confused, bored, or skeptical while reading your tales), the better you'll get at controlling the rhetoric of your fiction. (And do yourself a favor -- read Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction.)

Isaac Asimov, as a young writer, found himself imitating the admired style of his youth -- a purple kind of prose that today would be execrable, but even then was no great thrill to read. Disgusted with the results in his own storytelling, he stopped trying to have a "style" at all, and instead concentrated on simple, declarative writing. In his own mind, he was removing all style from his work. But I see it differently. Asimov was concentrating on perfecting his rhetoric, which he did better than any other writer of our time. His writing became so transparent, so rhetorically effective, that you are almost never conscious of the style, but rather are conscious of the ideas or events being presented. Asimov was criticized for not "characterizing" (though characterization is utterly unrelated to style), but what I find is that, on those rare occasions when the kind of story he was telling required deep character creation, he did an excellent job of it; however, the reader was never aware of it because the forward flow didn't stop in order to allow obvious, self-conscious character revelation.

In fact, Asimov became the foremost practitioner of the American plain style. Because he wrote science fiction, the chief gossips of the American literary neighborhood never gave him credit for his achievement, and in fact wrote disparagingly of his writing when they noticed it at all. But not one of them is capable of what Asimov achieved. And -- most important to this discussion -- his work had a definite, pronounced style which is extraordinarily hard to imitate. His "fingerprint" is clear and uniquely his own. That it does not intrude on the reader's consciousness at any point during the process of reading is one of its virtues, not a failing.

Can you improve your style? Not directly. But if you work on your rhetoric -- on communicating the plain tale clearly, credibly, persuasively -- your natural style will emerge without any effort at all on your part. Other people will point it out; sometimes, when it is excessive, you will even want to tone it down (after the fact, though, never while you're writing your first draft). But you yourself will never give it a thought while writing.

Wait a minute -- there is just one little thing that can improve your style, if you're up to it, if it matters to you. I'm a great believer in the music of language, the rhythm, the meter of it. Now and then, while writing, I become aware of writing with close attention to rhythm -- usually a fluid iambic. This is usually second nature to me, because I spent so many hours and pages writing poetry and verse drama when I was younger. And in denouements, especially of my short stories, I sometimes write it as smoothly flowing verse, pure and simple, and then spread it out as regular prose on the page. Note the ending of my short story "The Fringe," for instance. But you'll notice that in so doing, I am not trying to make my writing "distinctive" or "stylish." Rather I am using iambic rhythm as a closure device -- a rhetorical tactic -- much the way that Shakespeare often closed scenes with rhymed couplets. A more formalized, structured language gives a sense of closure. Since this can be called "style," it's only fair to point out that I use it, and it is a deliberate, conscious language technique. But I must also point out that this is completely consistent with what I have said above: If I do it right, it is invisible to the reader, and it falls within the category of rhetoric -- achieving practical effectiveness of writing -- rather than style -- causing readers to notice how "well" I'm writing.

Question 2

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