Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing; freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained writers in the world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.
These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humourless or playful? And so on and on.
Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing.
“If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel you care nothing about them.”
They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead or, worse, they will stop reading you. The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you don’t know what is interesting and what is not. We like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show us or make us think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.
Your own winning style must begin with the ideas in your head.
1. Find a subject which you care about.
Choose one which you feel in your heart others should care about. Genuine caring, not your games with language and its misuse, will be the most compelling and seductive element in your writing style.
You don’t need to write a novel although I would not be sorry if you did, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house, or a love letter to a girl/boy will do.
2. Do not ramble
I won’t ramble on about that.
3. Keep it simple.
Remember those two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce. They wrote sentences which were almost childlike even when their subjects were most profound.
“To be or not to be!” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters.
Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favourite sentence in his short story Eveline is this: “She was tired.”
At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words. The simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.
The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning …”
4. Have the guts to cut
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should serve your ideas. When thinking about writing, you might make a rule like this:
“If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
5. Sound like yourself
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speaking styles you heard when you were a child.
English was novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much may seem piquant in his use of English. But there’s no doubt it was coloured by his first language, which was Polish. Lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical.
I grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds rather like a band-saw cutting through galvanised iron and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Other Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect the majority cannot understand. All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful.
No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and the other one blue. Unique.
I find I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternative do I have? Of course, the style most vehemently recommended to me by teachers – and to you, as well, no doubt – has been to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
6. Say what you mean.
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but I am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness.
“Those works said precisely what their authors meant them to say.”
My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped I would become understandable – and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols do with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood.
So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood. Readers want our pages to look like pages they have seen before. Why? Because the readers themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us, the writers.
7. Pity the readers.
They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read – an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school – 12 years or more. So this report must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be imperfect artists.
Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify – whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales. That is the bad news.
The good news is we Americans are governed by a unique Constitution which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our writing styles, which is the manner in which we choose to write, is unlimited.
8. For detailed advice…
For a review of literary style in a narrower more technical sense, I commend this book, The Element of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. E.B.White is one of the most admirable literary stylists America has produced.
By Kurt Vonnegut. Reproduced for Educational Purposes.