literary style

What is Style?

He’s supposed to have a particularly high-class style:
“Feather-footed through the splashy fen passes the questing vole” …would that be it?
“Yes,” said that Managing Editor. “That must be good style. At least it doesn’t sound like anything else to me.”

It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.  —Jack Kerouac
Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.  —Allegra Goodman

The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off. —Raymond Chandler

It takes a long time to play like yourself.  —Miles Davis

Many beginners are obsessed with style.  They want to know if their style is good or if there is “enough of it.”  What is style, anyway?

Sir Joshua Reynolds said—

“Style in painting is the same as in writing, a power over materials, whether words or colors, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed.”

Style is not what you write, but how you write it. It’s the form, not the content.

Eudora Welty—

“The stories by one writer tend to spring from the same source within him. However they differ in subject or approach, however they vary in excellence or fluctuate in their power to alter the mind or mood or move the heart, all of one writer’s stories must take on their quality, carry their signature, because of one characteristic, lyrical impulse of his mind—the impulse to praise, to love, to call up, to prophesy.”

Virginia Woolf—

“Style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words… . This is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing… one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in.”

Jean-Luc Godard—

“To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.”

Joyce Carol Oates—

“It isn’t the subjects we write about but the seriousness and subtlety of our expression that determines the worth of our effort.”


“Style is the man himself.”

Hemingway’s simple declarative sentences are a matter of style. So are Henry James’s long, intricate, finely balanced ones with the stinger in the tail, and Proust’s even longer ones, pages long, each a miracle of structure and balance. So are Faulkner’s untidy but powerful sentences with their negative dependent qualifying clauses set in parallel construction.

Style is more than diction (word choice) or rhetoric (intention to persuade). Style is a writer’s pattern of varying short, long, simple, and complex sentences; his use and originality of metaphors; his ear for alliterations, assonances, and other rhetorical devices; even his deployment of punctuation, whether he opts for the em dash, the parenthesis, or the semicolon. Style emerges from the writer’s mannerisms, his weaknesses and strengths. Style is the writer’s fingerprint.

No one who had turned on the TV in the ‘90s remained in the dark as to whom the main characters in Primary Colors were based. The hero, Jack Stanton, was none other than “the most enigmatic American alive”—Bill Clinton. But the novel was published anonymously, and the question on everyone’s minds was—who wrote it? The author (Joe Klein, a journalist with a corpus of published work) was identified by a stylistician, Professor Don Foster. Occasionally employed by the FBI, Foster had applied his stylometric techniques to the text of Primary Colors and found it matched Klein’s style.

Everyone has a linguistic style, our own idiolect that is as unique as our fingerprints or DNA.

The following sentences all have the same content, the same information, but they have different styles.

It could not be used.
It was useless.
It failed to function.
Junk, pure junk!
It was as useless as a rule book at a riot.

Which sentence uses the correct style? All of them.


“Every style that is not boring is a good one.”

One person will write that the house fell into disarray while someone else will write, Pride of ownership had long-ago vanished, replaced by heaps of garbage and half-empty rusting food cans littering the weed-infested yard. And still another person will write, The place was trashed out, like the crummy yard of the busted crack dealer down my block.

Look at the style of well written prose. Is it burdened by symbolism and knotted into great and complex poetry? Does it mean so much that it must be read three times to be understood? Good writing is simple, direct, and unpretentious.


“Prose is architecture, not interior design.”

Evelyn Waugh made a similar assessment—

“Properly understood, style is not seductive decoration added to a functional structure; it is the essence of the work of art. The necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, and individuality….”

The rules of style are not like the rules of arithmetic. No one can prove one method superior to another. Valid theories about which writing techniques create the most compelling reading, referred to as the “rules of style” are worth mastering.  However, no rule of style should be followed 100 percent of the time.

William Hazlitt—

Rules and models destroy genius and art.

Hugh MacDiarmid—

Our principle writers have nearly all been fortunate in escaping regular education.

Bronson Alcott—

“Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression.”

Writing is an art, not a science, and there are many times in your writing when the “wrong” way is the right way because of content or the mood you are striving to create.

That said, obey the rules of style unless you have a concrete reason for detouring from the trodden path. To discern such mechanics, you must first master the rules.

Consider Hemingway’s admonition—

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular rules before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.

When you sit down to write, don’t try to be stylish, to write “literature.”  Just try to write. Take the tools of what you learn and develop the craft of writing well. And never forget content. Whether your work is fiction or nonfiction, what you have to say should be worth reading; otherwise, regardless of how beautifully you expressed yourself, no one will care. Simple math will tell you—zero times any number is zero.

Adela Rogers St. John said—

I have always believed that what you say is more important than how you say it. Certainly it is better to write well than to write badly, but too often I find people worrying desperately about how to say something that isn’t worth saying anyhow. I have wished more time was spent on thinking, feeling, knowing people, and less on the thought of style and construction, which has to be second at least.

No amount of technique can repair an engine that isn’t under the hood, and no glory of style, knack with words, or fancy writing can conceal the void of sincerity, passion, and an urgency to tell a story.  When you write, every sentence should be an arrow aimed at exactly what you mean to say.

In the last analysis, if a style doesn’t come easily to you, it won’t come easily to your readers. While you can (and should) develop your style, understand that it is intrinsic to who you are, your perceptions and voice.  Style isn’t a seasoning to sprinkle on an entrée. It is within the ingredients you draw from and, therefore, should be fully—naturally—incorporated into the dish you serve.

Henry David Thoreau wrote—

As for style of writing, if one has anything to say, it drops from him simply and directly, as a stone falls to the ground.

Blaise Pascal said—

When some passion or effect is described in a natural style, we find within ourselves the truth of what we hear, without knowing it was there.

If your goal is style, it will translate to the page with a phony ring. If, however, you write what you intend to say, what you truly perceive and feel, you will discover the unique style of your prose. Because style is the person who wrote the piece, your style will be unique, as you are unique.

George Orwell—

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

The opportunity to learn from other writers gives us tremendous advantage.  The error is setting out to copy their renowned styles. Hemingway’s, with its apparent simplicity, is the most aped style by novice writers. Unfortunately, the simplicity on the page rises from a mechanical genius that is far from simple to replicate.  Yes, Hemingway reached for it, but it came to him organically because it’s who he is, which is why it works for him and is poorly copied by others.  Even the brilliant Steinbeck had this to say on Hemingway Envy

Ernest Hemingway wrote a certain kind of story better and more effectively than it had ever been done before. He was properly accepted and acclaimed. He was imitated almost slavishly by every young writer, including me, not only in America but in the world. He wrote a special kind of story out of a special kind of mind and about special moods and situations. When his method was accepted, no other method was admired. The method or style not only conditioned the stories but the thinking of his generation. Superb as his method is, there are many things which cannot be said using it. The result of his acceptance was that writers did not write about those things which could not be said in the Hemingway manner, and gradually they did not think them either.

Harlan Ellison—

I’m not as lean and hard as Hemingway, and I’m not as bittersweet, punch-in-the-belly as Goldman, because I’m me and they’re they, and I’d never want the twain to meet. When I was 17, I wanted to be another James Joyce. I wised up. I settled for being the first Me. Not only is it less strain, but it stays within the limits of possibility.

Strunk and White advise writers to place themselves in the background—

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed, and not at the expense of the work. To achieve style, begin by affecting none —that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge, and when this happens he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate him from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principle reward.

Isaac Asimov said—

“Style is that use of language that creates a vivid, full-color image, with sound and smell and other sensory effects, in the reader’s mind; and that is all. It is not there for its own sake, nor to tell the reader how smart the author is. Remember: what lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what is it doing there? Make it do its job or cut it without mercy or remorse.”

The style of your writing involves two dimensions, the technical and the aesthetic. Think of the former as a house and the latter as its furnishings. The technical dimensions—variety, contrast, proportion, timing, symmetry, tempo—they tell us what type of house it is, be it colonial, craftsman, contemporary. The aesthetic dimensions—clarity, beauty, elegance, harmony, rhythm, grace—these imbue your home with ambience, giving it a somewhat delicate feel the reader will experience without necessarily being aware of its source. Both dimensions work together, playing off each other. Contrast, for example, is a strong factor in creating clarity. When you contrast concepts like good and evil, spiritual and physical, rich and poor, light and dark, silence and sounds, you heighten the effect and clarity of your work.

As William Strunk Jr., of The Elements of Style fame, would declare between pursed lips—

Be clear. Be concise. Be forceful. Know where you are going. Avoid windy locutions, repetitive mannerisms. Save your most important point for last.

As F. Scott saw it, “[Style] is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought.” Good style, then, is your voice + good writing. Make sure to practice—master—the tools in the Writer’s Toolbox, then let your personality shine through. It’s as simple as that.

“Don’t just plan to write,” as P.D. James said. “Write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist