Style cannot be learned, but must be brought out and burnished—chisel, sandpaper, diamond dust, all the way down to the spit-and-rub.
On the density of style, and where to find advice on style (Strunk & White and Fowler’s).
Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.
On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.
Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.
For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.
A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his owndictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found inEssays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).
I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)
The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).
Tips on how to write clean, balanced prose that conveys your meaning (without hiding it behind unnecessary hedge words.)
E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).
Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale.
Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?
Humour is one of those things that you recognise about the time it makes you smile. Most people would rather enjoy it than figure out its rhetorical secrets. But there’s good reason to make an effort: not everyone is born a humorist, and I believe that those of us left without the gift can still learn to throw a joke, the way even the worst apprentice learns to throw a pot—it may be a laughing stock, but it’ll hold water.
Don’t let the first line of the Quote throw you.
Quote: Practically everyone is a manic depressive of sorts, with his moments and his down moments, and you certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.
On E. B. White’s “Style is an increment in writing”, and on Bukowski’s short poem “Style”.
Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzegerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use language, reveal something of their spirit, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito. — E. B. White, An Approach to Style in Strunk & White
White puts it so plainly, so delicately. Only skilled writers show theirspirit, their capacities, their biases because their expressive medium is no longer cluttered by ungainly turns of phrase and forced plot devices. Don’t his words make you want to reach that increment in writing where you too have style? (Not to say that you don’t already.)
White also reaffirms that hiding behind words is not possible: the better you write, the more each word says about who you are.
Perhaps I will now commit sacrilege—if so, please avert your eyes and ears, and click away—by placing alongside one of the most timid and decorous writers, E. B. White, the complete opposite: one of the most brash and indecorous men, Charles Bukowski.
E. B. White on a writer’s duty: always play to an audience of one.
It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living. — E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White
In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.
A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.
E. B. White shows us how to summarise for humour in his essay Mr. Forbushe’s Friends.
I see him, again, concealed in the lowest branches of a spruce on a small island off the Maine coast—a soft, balmy night. He is observing the arrival of Leach’s petrels, whose burrows are underneath the tree—eerie, strange birds, whose chuckling and formless sounds might have been the conversation of elves.
Edward Howe Forbush wrote Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1927–29), a book E. B. White cherished and returned to over the years, and subsequently wrote about in the aforementioned essay calling it “a three-volume summation of the avian scene”. Through his own writing, White transmitted Mr Forbush’s enthusiasm and even found merit in his rich prose occasionally touched with purple but never with dullness or disenchantment — high praise from the co-author of Strunk & White, where Omit needless words is a dictum carved in stone.
A rather dull topic for those not interested in birds, isn’t it?
E. B. White and the unruffled but prickly surface of a pasture pond. Exemplary writing, and what makes it so.
Quote: The pasture pond was unruffled but had the prickly surface caused by raindrops, and it seemed bereft without geese. The sky was a gloomy grey. Two rosebuds bowed courteously to each other on the terrace.
A vivid few sentences by E. B. White in his essay, Eye of the Edna, from the book Essays of E. B. White. He is describing his farmyard before Hurricane Edna struck New England in 1954.