Stephen Wilbers: Style turns ordinary writing extraordinary

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 14, 2010 - 5:49 PM

What is style?

At its most basic level, style is beauty. A pleasing sound. A certain look. Something that gives pleasure beyond function or pragmatic purpose. To write with style is to command language, to produce a nice effect, to delight as well as inform.

Matthew Arnold's take on style was straightforward: "Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style." Alfred North Whitehead declared, "Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful."

Style, in other words, is not pretense. Though it may involve flourish or an occasional well-turned phrase, its essence goes deeper. Style is beauty, but not beauty for beauty's sake. Style is also utilitarian.

And herein lies its value for the everyday writer.

Whether a chemistry professor writing a grant proposal or an auditor drafting a compliance report, whether a texter or a tweeter, the everyday writer writes to accomplish something. Writing with style -- showy or plain but appropriate to the purpose, the occasion and the reader -- increases your odds of accomplishing your goal. As all good communicators know, it's not just what you say; it's how you say it.

Compare, for example, the previous sentence with this one: "All good communicators know that it's not just what you say but it's also the way you say it."

The first version has rhythm and shape; the second version is flat. Which version makes the point more emphatically? Which makes you want to keep reading?

Likewise, compare "As per your request, enclosed please find a brochure on freedom, civil liberties and the rights of an American citizen" with "Thank you for your interest in freedom and civil liberties. I am enclosing a brochure that explains your rights as an American citizen."

So how do you learn style? You play the game. You learn the rules. You learn the parts of speech. You learn grammar, punctuation and appropriate word choice. Then having learned the rules, you learn when to break them. Old rule: Use coordinating conjunctions such as and and but to join elements within a sentence. New rule: In informal writing you may use and or but as the first word of a sentence.

You also read. And if you come across something as beautiful and deceptively simple as John Keats' enduring line, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," you take a closer look. You examine its structure and cadence (simple declarative sentence followed by antimetabole or repeated words in reverse grammatical order). You try creating the effect in your own writing.

And you discover a simple truth: Style is more than meaning, meaning more than style.

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