Matters of Style

Anyone who likes to write usually struggles with matters of style. Serious writers want to develop a particular voice in their writing. And while they may settle on a style of writing that comes “natural” to them, they’re always looking, consciously or not, for ways to personalize their prose. The searching question is always: How do I create a particular sound on the page?

Most writers learn to write from doing a lot of reading. I for one am a slow reader. I read slow because I not only want to take in what the author has to say about the topic, I also want to absorb—at least from the good writers—their particular style: the syntax, rhythm, and word play. The question for me as I read along is: How does this writer do what they do?   

I have a whole book shelf of books about style and writing. It’s standard practice for me to buy any new books on style by well known authors once I’m aware of them. For example, recently Steven Pinker released a new book on style called The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Well, of course, I pre-ordered it before its release. My new copy now sits on a stack of other books I hope to eventually read. The stack keeps growing. Eventually, I’ll get around to reading Pinker’s new style book and posting my thoughts about it on this blog.

So my thoughts on writing and style will be topics I’ll post about on this blog. I’ll talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a writer’s style in a book review or essay. And then there are a number of great essays on style and writing by famous authors that I’d like to write about on this blog. I think style is the essential element of all writers. It reflects a certain quality of mind in the writer, so it’s something I pay close attention to in writing. 

One never masters the craft of writing, I know I certainly haven’t, but one works diligently as an admiring student of the craft. I’m rarely satisfied completely with what I write, though I’m starting to be less critical of my writing since I’ve come to accept Voltaire’s adage that we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. I generally have two thoughts after reading through something I’ve written on a blog, at work, or in some other medium over the years, and that’s the thought of either “Hey, not too bad. I actually come across as a somewhat intelligent and skillful writer,” or “This is complete drivel.” The later thought tends to predominant with me.

Of course my problem is more than just perfectionism and disappointment. It’s also partly a lack of focus and the sometimes horrible fear that I’m just never going to be really any good at this craft. The fear of failure has kept me from writing for long periods of time. But I have a passion for writing so I always return to the craft, even if I’m not as good as I’d like to be. The best thing I can do, the best that any of us can do, is do the best we can. And that should be good enough.  

I recently posted this comment on another blog about my struggle with writing:

For the most part I go back and read things I’ve written and think ‘I could have done a lot better.’ That feeling of failure has at various times kept me from writing or blogging for long periods. Most successful writers struggle with their writing because they’re usually perfectionists. And most of them, if they want to continue to write, eventually learn that perfection is an illusion. You write and craft sentences and tell stories because you want to, because it’s a passion you have, it’s an aesthetic experience you enjoy. At some point writing is an act of faith. We do it believing that what we do, while not perfect, is an act of reverence for the power of words and the belief that what we do matters in some way to someone.

Well those thoughts basically sum up why I continue to write and why I continue to be so passionate about the craft.

Why I Write

The Power of Words

When I considered why I wanted to start this blog, my first thoughts were of George Orwell’s piece Why I Write. Orwell, in his trademark candor, laid out four general motives that he believed animated every writer in varying degrees. So instead of me trying to find the words to explain why I write (or blog), I’ll just let Orwell explain:

They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose.Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

All four of Orwell’s motives, in varying degrees, at different times, are what animate me to write. For example, If I had to choose I’d say aesthetic enthusiasm followed closely by historical impulse are the strongest motives in me at the moment. But maybe that’s just sheer egoism to say that.

As for political purpose, well, as Waldo Emerson said: “You can no more keep out of politics than you can keep out of the frost.” Regardless of how much distance one tries to keep or how much “objectivity” one tries to maintain, It’s impossible to affirm, criticize, or comment on any public policy, debate, proposal or political figure without appearing to take sides. The best any writer can do is write what he or she feels or thinks is the case based on the available facts and evidence at the time. In the Orwellian sense, my main political purpose is the hope that maybe something I write may alter someone’s idea about the kind of society (or way of life) we should strive for.

Lastly, there is one additional motive for writing glanced over by Orwell, and that’s about leaving something of myself behind beyond just memories and material things. So much of who we are — what we think and feel — is trapped inside our head. When we pass from this world there is nothing left but the memories of us in pictures, videos, and stories told by others. When we’re gone our material possessions are dispersed and sold off. But by writing (blogging) we can leave behind, locked in computer servers around the world long after we’re gone, our thoughts, opinions, concerns, loves, dislikes and traces of all the other intentional qualities that really make up the essence of who we really are. We may be gone physically, but our thoughts and feelings (in words) can be captured forever. The Reaper may steal us from this world, but we can leave behind for our children, grandchildren, friends, and future generations these distant echoes of our essential spirit to remember us by. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “Every word that you write is a blow that smites the Devil.”