Polishing up a large project – the subject too broad, the allotted words too few – for a prestigious “reference” series. And thinking about “style,” that elusive quality that distinguishes a book you can’t put down when you’ve picked it up from one it’s hard to pick up after putting down – and something that never gets taught in graduate school. (At least not where I went to graduate school.) It’s hard to talk about style, at least for me. I have a shelf-full of my father’s books back at my mother’s house in God’s Country, all of them on “English Prose Style,” not a one of which I’ve ever opened. Perhaps it’s time.
I can feel style in my bones, know a good style from a flat one, but have trouble talking about it. For me it’s a matter of sound: I know when a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph sounds good, and I can chip away at a recalcitrant chunk of prose until I get it sounding the way I like. (Of course, I can’t teach anyone else to do that – they’ve got to have read enough books, both good and bad, to be able to tell the difference themselves.) A few pointers to myself, perhaps as beginnings towards what’s already been codified in all those unread books (the first ones are pretty old & obvious):
•Avoid the passive voice, which drains agency from your prose (unless you want to drain agency from your prose – which means passive constructions are pretty useful for ironic purposes).
•Avoid nominalizations, or rather, Don’t make nouns out of verbs if you can help it – the verb has more energy.
•Avoid jargon: this one may be a personal thing – what’s jargon for one person is the technical mot juste for another – but I find that all those dandy terms and phrases all too often end up doing my thinking for me, or bending what I want to say into something slightly more conventional.
•If your sentences are running to more than four lines, they’re running too long and ought to be broken into shorter ones; or at least you should try to break them down, and see what happens. Sometimes a massive periodic sentence is precisely the thing to instantiate a complex conceptual relationship. Often, however, it’s just the flow of your own prose running away from you.
•Try to alternate sentence lengths, or at least never string together four or five long, complex sentences. Break them up with shorter, punchier things.
•The single greatest source of tedium in prose is repeated words. Try to vary phrases and constructions from sentence to sentence.
•A shift in diction, like a whammy bar dive towards the end of a guitar solo, is a great ice-breaker. A neat trick – but only once in a while. I’d rather be locked in a room with Charlie Christian than with Eddie Van Halen.
•All rules are made to be broken. Every piece of formal writing should have at least one crucial sentence fragment.
•Don’t be afraid of jokes, even rather dry ones. (Every oral presentation should have a joke within the first two minutes.)
•The Scylla and Charybdis I myself must avoid: banal lucidity and preciousness. Every writer has her or his own set of poles to identify and steer between.
•A great stylist breaks every regulation laid down in the style sheets, in the process inventing the only style that will carry her or his thought. Adorno, Stein, Derrida, Geoffrey Hill. Those who weakly imitate that style, however, will be among the worst writers of their generation.