style of the Anticlaudianus first provokes contemptuous
amusement, then amused contempt,
and finally a rankling personal hatred of the author.”
--C. S. Lewis,
the Latin writing style of the Anticlaudianus, a medieval
What is Style?
What exactly is style?
When writers talk about
style, it's a lot like wine connoisseurs discussing the tastes
of wine. For instance, a diehard wine-drinker might call one
wine fruity and another dry. Either of those
wines might also be murky, hot or even impertinent.
But what does that mean? Aren't all wines fruity since
they are made from grapes? How can a liquid beverage taste
dry? These terms mean little to those who have not
tasted many, many wines. It is a description that has to be
experienced in the mouth, rather than plainly discussed.
In the same way, describing
a writer's style as tough, or stuffy, or sweet
doesn't make much sense to someone who hasn't contrasted
several writing styles. It may sound like these terms are
by editors as they go along. The truth is, however, we see
a real difference between a passage Ernest Hemingway
writes and one William Faulkner pens, just as a fruity red
wine tastes differently than a crisp chardonais. Individual
writers tend to use different vocabularies, different sentence
and different punctuation.
For instance, the Victorian
writer George Bulwer-Lytton, the man who penned the phrase,
"It was a dark and stormy night..." is famous for
having a "torrid" writing style, one characterized
by interjections and interruptions and piled-up phrases and
clauses. Here is the first sentence to his novel Paul Clifford
was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except
at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent
gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London
that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and
fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled
against the darkness.
This style contrasts sharply
with the simplicity favored by many twentieth-century American
novelists. For instance, if an early twentieth-century writer
like Hemingway had written the same sentence above, the hypothetical
passage might have looked something like this:
dark a storm came and sometimes in the wind there was a
noise on the rooftops. You could see the streetlamps struggling
to stay lit.
the two passages differ. Bulwer-Lytton loves punctuation
marks like dashes,
paranetheses, and commas. Hemingway tries to keep his sentences
uncluttered, and often deletes commas from the places
would normally appear. Bulwer-Lytton likes long sentences
(58 words). Hemingway prefers shorter ones (17 words).
vocabulary, Bulwer-Lytton prefers Latinate root-words like
agitate, and Hemingway prefers Germanic root-words
like struggle. Bulwer-Lytton likes to repeat dominant
images (dark and darkness appear in the same
sentence). Hemingway dislikes such repetition. Bulwer-Lytton
loves to use many adjectives (dark, stormy,
occasional, violent, scanty) and some
adverbs (fiercely). Hemingway often uses no adjectives
at all. In this hypothetical Hemingway passage, even the
dark is now functioning as a substantive noun, synonymous
with night. While Bulwer-Lytton's style was quite
popular in the Victorian period, most modern writers find
excessive. We tend to prefer Hemingway's clarity and brevity
to Bulwer-Lytton's purple prose.
In the same way, all writers
vary in their styles. Their sentences differ in length and
complexity. Each individual tends to put the words together
in particular patterns. Each writer's tone may be objective
and distanced, or up-close and personal. Style involves all
these choices and more. Style is the intangible essence of
what makes a person's writing unique.
adapt different styles at different times in their writing
writers have specific traits that always set them apart.
Fantasy writer Piers Anthony's style involves extensive
use of puns.
Faulkner's style involves long, rolling sentences and experimentation
with compound words and so-called "stream
of consciousness" narration. Hemingway's style
has often been described as "gritty"; it involves
removal of commas and deadpan description of often gruesome
Hemingway often uses concise, staccato sentences with few
authorial comments. Jane Austen's writing style has
"dry"; it involves multisyllabic words and understated
wit. Charles Dickens favors a Latinate vocabulary and long
sentence structure; he often interrupts his narrative to
directly address the reader in a personal aside. Notice
are tendencies--not absolute laws. Good writers vary their
style as appropriate. The best writers can don one style
another to suit their purpose, rather than simply having
a single style.
There are two ways to
explore style and understand it:
(1) The first method of
understanding style is a "hands-on" approach in
which students read passages by different
authors and then try to imitate their favorites.
(2) The second
(and more abstract) way to understand style is to analyze
style mathematically by breaking down each sentence
into grammatical parts and noting what features are statistically
more common in certain styles.
Read through both of the
links above. After examining the passages by different authors,
and seeing the statistical differences in each style, you
can click on an exercise to
help you master three common styles.