As writers, one of the biggest things we worry about is style. (Okay, not all of us. My friend Franco apparently doesn’t think about style much.) We don’t want to sound too much like someone else, but at the same time, we’re afraid that if we are truly ourselves in our writing, we won’t be liked or someone will disagree with us. (Perhaps that’s a bit of an over-generalization. Not all of us feel that way, I’m sure.) One of the problems with developing style is that, while we all sort of know what it is–we all have an inkling, at least–none of us are entirely sure what exactly style is. In Chapter 1 of Nora Bacon’s “The Well-Crafted Sentence,” she refers to style as “the quality of writing that makes it uniquely and recognizably the creation of one writer ” (5), which is just about what we would probably say about style. I think at one point in time, someone asked me what writing style meant to me, and I responded with “style is the way a writer…writes.”
If style is what makes writing unique to its writer, how do we identify the way someone writes? In an ongoing discussion with one of my professors (not for this class, though), my professor explained that a person’s distinct writing style depends on numerous factors including word choice, syntax, sentence length and variation, and even the topic the person chooses to write about. Everything we do as writers contributes to our style.
But how do we describe a writer’s style? According to Nora Bacon, there are three elements of style: Style as Identity, Style as Embellishment, and Plain Style. (I personally believe it should be style as embellishment plus plain style equals style as identity.) People who favor style as identity focus on developing a style that is purely their own. Those who favor embellishment tend to be described as having flowery writing. This particular element also strives to find more than one way to say the same thing to be sure that the final copy is the best way. Here, Bacon cites Erasmus as an example, who wrote “your letter pleased me greatly” 195 times, different each time (7). The last style is the style that not only Bacon, but I as well favor. Plain style is all about being as clear and concise as possible. Now, this is not to say that I only write in plain style. I actually write poetry more often than any other type of writing, and poetry is known for it’s flowery, embellished language. But I have to start by writing exactly what I want to say and exactly what I mean, so I can keep that in mind as I write the poem. If I start off trying to write with embellishment, it usually turns out to be one of those really crappy, really cliche, really cheesy poems that is almost obvious was written by an inexperienced writer.
Not to knock crappy poems or anything. After all, crappy writing is how we gain the experience. In fact, this is where one of the main tenets of style as embellishment comes into play: Copia. Abundance. Not only should we try writing the same thing in many different ways to find the best way to convey our desired meaning, but just write abundantly in general. The more we write, the better writers we will become. Like Nora Bacon said, “…you can’t decide against [something you’ve written] until you’ve given yourself permission to write it” (10).
After we’ve tried writing something in many different ways, what helps us decide which one works best is the rhetorical context. Who is going to read this and why are they reading it? (Are they reading it for fun or to be informed, for example?) What am I writing about? What is my informing purpose? (In the words of yet another one of my professors, what do I want my reader to do or think or know or feel?) How are my own personal experiences going to affect the way I present my message? The way we speak to our friends is certainly different from the way we speak to our parents or professors or bosses. (At least, I would hope so.)
For years now, I have been discussing the importance of knowing the rhetorical context, even though I didn’t know that’s what it was called. Just last year, when my parents asked me how I was, my younger brother who is still in the “I know more than you” phase, snidely corrected me when I answered, “I’m doing good.” “It’s well,” he said. But here’s my argument: Language is fluid. It’s always growing. It’s always changing. In Chaucer’s Middle English, adverbs ended in -liche. (That’s pretty much the only thing I understand about Middle English.) Now, that’s been changed to just the -ly ending. Even in Shakespeare’s Early Modern English there are great differences from our current way of speaking and writing. We can even see the language changing right now, with the additions of words like “google” and “twerk” to the dictionary. Even though language is changing, it’s purpose remains the same: to communicate with one another. That’s it. To get your meaning across. My parents understood what I meant when I said, “I’m doing good,” so I did my job.
Now here’s where rhetorical context comes in. I have no problem mixing up good and well with my parents because that is a casual setting where grammar is less important. If I had been writing an academic paper, you can bet your sweet bippy I would have written “well.” I would have written well, too. (Though I probably shouldn’t have said “you can bet your sweet bippy.” I mean, this still is an assignment. Oh well.)
The rhetorical context determines our word choice, our grammar, our topic, our syntax–everything. The rhetorical context determines how we write, which in turn affects our style.