Rewriting for Style

Jack Rawlins


Now that we've said something and given it shape, it's time to think about style.

Style in writing means exactly what it means in the rest of your life: It's the how instead of the what, your way of doing things, your manner, your way of expressing yourself. In writing as in life, it's easy to care too much about style and too little about substance—we all sometimes fall into the error of thinking that how our hair looks is the most important thing in the world. So we need to keep style in its place, which is here, after the more important matters of saying something and organizing it have been addressed.

Style as Clothing

Writing style is like clothing—the decorative covering we put over the content. This tells us everything we need to know about it.

Style is independent of content.

You can say any message in any style, just as you can put any sort of clothing on any body. Anyone can wear a tutu or a wetsuit or a belly-dancing costume. You may get laughed at or run from, but that's a different issue.

This is the most important lesson about style to learn, because writers defend bad writing by insisting that what they say determines how they say it. "I have to be stuffy and pretentious, because I'm talking about this very serious issue," they say. Never.

Style is chosen.

You decide what style to use, the way you decide what clothes to wear. Even if you got dressed this morning without thinking about it, you decided. You could have worn something else. You're responsible for the choice.

You can't not choose.

You can't write without style, any more than you can dress in no way at all. Whatever language you use will have a certain sentence length, be passive or active, use Latinate words or avoid them. Doing what's "in" or what everyone else is doing is still a choice. Since you can't not choose, you want to control your choosing.

Style sends a message.

Some believe it shouldn't be that way, but it's true: the way you use language, like the way you dress, is heard as a message by everyone who sees it. Style, someone famously once said, is the subtlest level of meaning. If you wear your baseball cap backwards, people will assume you're telling them something. If you wear a business suit, people will assume you're telling them something. You can't stop the process, so you want to control it.

Choose your style for the effect it has on the reader.

There is no good or right style, only styles that produce the response you want in the reader and those that don't. Every day, I decide to dress in the way that I guess will produce the response in my students that I want. I wear a tie, because I guess that they'll see it and say, "This guy is serious and professional about what we're doing." It has nothing to do with my personal taste—I hate wearing ties.

Remember, controlling effect never equals doing what the reader wants. You may want to please, but you don't have to. You can wear a clown suit, or nothing, to class if you're willing to take the predictable reaction.

Alternatives equal power.

The more ways I can dress, the more places I can go and the more things I can do. If I can only wear a T-shirt and jeans, I can't go to the ball. If I don't own a wetsuit, I can't go scuba diving. Similarly, the more ways I can write, the more responses I can provoke and the more things I can do with my writing.

Most of us choose by habit.

We write the way we dress—the way we always do, without thinking about it much. This is giving up our power to choose and thus control our audience.

Style is where the fun is.

Trying out different words and sentence structures should feel just like playing dress-up or trying on clothes at the mall: it's a game. Try on the clown suit, sample a few wigs, slip into the slinky cocktail dress …

How to Master a Style: Three Steps

Style is a series of choices: Do you make the sentences long or short? Do you write in first person or third person? To control a stylistic choice, you have to do three things:

Believe you have the choice.

Obviously, if you don't know the choice is available to you, you can't make it, so first we must become style conscious.

Consciousness comes in two stages. The first stage is realizing that English offers you the options. Sometimes this stage is easy. Everyone knows that English will let you write long sentences or short ones, for instance. Sometimes it isn't so obvious. Not all of us realize that English will let you write passive sentences or active sentences, and almost no one outside the academy realizes that English will let you write Latinate words, Romance words, or Germanic words.

Once you realize that the language offers you the option, Stage Two consists of realizing that you still have the option whatever you're writing about and whatever you're saying. Many writers say, "Sure, I know that English makes it possible to write in concrete language and short sentences, but I can't do it here—I'm writing about serious, sophisticated stuff, so I need abstract language and long, complex sentence structure." Any time you tell yourself that your topic or your message dictates your style choice, you're wrong. You can say anything about anything in any style.

Understand the effect of your choices.

You must know what happens if you do it a certain way. If you make your sentences short, how will readers react? If you make them long, how will they react?

As with all predicting of human behavior, this is an inexact science. If you wear your baseball cap backwards, some people will react with "Oooh, he's cool" and some with "What a doofus." If I wear a tie to work, some students will react with "He's a competent professional" and some with "He's stuffy and boring." As always, expect readers' responses to be a lot like your own: How do you feel when you read a lot of short sentences?

Master the technique.

It's not enough to own the bicycle; you have to learn to ride it.

Let's practice the three steps, using three elements of style: sentence length, Latinate diction, and concretion.

Rawlins, Jack, ed. The Writer's Way. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.