On Style and Skill

An essay about understanding the writing rules before you break them by Rachel Thomspon.

Style, what it is and what it ain’t.
A writer in my critique group turned to the others and said, “That’s my style. It’s fine.”
It wasn’t fine and it wasn’t style.
He had argued about it many times saying “the rules don’t matter,” and “I don’t understand what the rules are for.” He often advised others to ignore the good advice of writers that know their craft well in favor of his amateur wisom, saying, “Don’t let them wreck your style!”
The last time he proclaimed his style as all-powerful against group critique, his rebuttal shot far off topic. Comments given to him had to do with structure and form, but ignored his usual wordiness, stilted dialogue, and passive sentences. I intentionally set my advice aside anticipating his usual argumentative response. The structural issues we had all identified had little to do with style, yet he attacked the observers’ legitimate craft-based considerations, saying, “Yeah, I know, but it’s my style.”
By the way, for critique to work, those who receive the critique should not rebut but listen and digest. That is a major and typical guideline of critique philosophy. This group had adopted this rule. But, as we had noticed in his writing with the basic structure rules, he didn’t follow the critique rule either.
His counterarguments conflated the groups’ notice of various craft issues as an attack on his style which he defended as if it was an attack on him. It wasn’t.
This novice writer doesn’t understand why craft-borne-rules enhance writing. He spewed rebuke at the standards rather than try to understand and master them. He doesn’t know what style and voice mean so he can’t grow his craft. He’s using his style, or what he thinks of as his style, to cover all sins. But it can’t.
Bad prose isn’t good style. Style isn’t a legitimate excuse for weak and ponderous writing.
Conventions, rules, methods, and standards are there for a reason. The best writers use them. Yes, rules can and should be broken but only for a calculated purpose and only if it serves the reader and story. Sure, cast the “rules” aside but don’t expect anyone who reads it to understand it. Respect the reader. Why labor the reader? To what end? Confuse the reader and he’ll throw your masterpiece at the wall. Good style, that.
Readers may not know the rules but they know when something doesn’t work. The rules, as a resistant writer sees it, impede his style. He is wrong, especially regarding prose.
Good prose lets style thrive. From a commercial fiction standard point of view—what most of us read—bad prose in the name of style isn’t publishable. Readers have expectations baked-in from years of reading. When the writer goes off that rail, the reader stops reading. Reading is a set of stairs in which readers should not need to think about each step.
What if every carpenter-built set of stairs was made any-which-way? Every staircase different? Every step is a potential trip hazard. This is why we have standards and rules in construction as well as in writing. It keeps the reader’s feet under him so he is able to climb the story’s stair.
How is making the reader reread after every trip-up good style?
What is style anyway? Style is not so much how you say it but what you decided to say. How you say it clearly involves the rules of writing. The reader needs these basic rules to understand what is written. Style is what you the author choose to write about and choose to show within the tale that you intend to tell. Word choice is the finest aspect of style.
Style emerges naturally and so do writing habits. Bad prose-habits aren’t style—don’t conflate—we all have writing habits and most of them suck. Late (second, third, tenth) drafts are when copy-editing and line-editing happen—that’s where you take your stylish and confusing author’s voice out and let your characters’ voices in.
Readers hate author’s intrusion. Editing is about removing the author’s word-junk. We all do it, especially Stephen King. First-whack writing ain’t where style is at. Falling in love with your writer’s chestnut-laden voice isn’t good for the reader. Walking barefoot on a field of chestnuts isn’t fun reading no matter how much the author loves chestnuts.
Readers know good style when they read it, conversely, they don’t know they’re reading it. Style should not distract the reader. Style should not overwhelm the story. Style is not mystical. It’s not magic. The writer putting across exactly what needs to be there, and no more, and showing it in a way the reader grasps easily without stumbling—that is good style.
Here’s the thing. If you write to hear your own voice on paper that’s fine. If the goal is writing to publish, it must be done in a way that people will not only read it, they won’t put it down. To that end, the writer must employ the rules and methods of craft to guide and represent his or her style.
The big nut in all of this is to serve the reader. The reader doesn’t know what you are saying without organized clarity—that is what the rules do. What good is writing with style if the reader can’t understand it?

Rachel Thompson contributed to the Parisian Phoenix non fiction anthology, Not an Able-Bodied White Man with Money, and self publishes her novels as RC Thom. Her latest, The Book of Answers, was released last month.

Published by Angel Ackerman

Writer, Editor, Traveler, Fashionista, Francophile, Student and Mother

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