Can style be learned?
“Certainly, it can’t be achieved by any kind of step-by-step guide,” Ben Yagoda concludes in “The Sound on the Page.” “But following certain strategies and principles will clear a path for its arrival.”
Among his suggestions:
1. Train the ear.
“Pick up the strains of other writers’ styles … by what could be called active reading: reading widely and slowly, and aloud if possible. Choose some writers whose styles appeal to you and chart their careers, noting how their style changed or evolved in response to the needs of different books and the passage of time.”
2. Copy other writers�literally
“Because it forces you to slow down, simply copying a passage is a great way — much better than mere reading — of internalizing an author’s sensibility and cadences. Up until the late nineteenth century, when cheap textbooks became widely available, schoolchildren were routinely required to memorize passages of poetry and prose, and in so doing they tasted, chewed, swallowed and digested style. Give this a try with authors to whom you’re drawn. It will attune you to the literary-speech ratio in their style; it will help you feel their rhythms; it might clue you in to their characteristic clinkers.”
3. Turn on your cliche-watcher.
“Cliches are prominent features of everyone’s first draft, whether we write it down or keep it to ourselves. How could they not be? We hear and read them all the time and our brains are filled with them. The key to avoiding them in the second and succeeding drafts is recognizing them and casting them out.”
4. Read aloud.
“Revision is all about reading, and you need to be a good reader to hear your own cliches and the other ill-advised compositional decisions you’ve made.”
5. cc yourself.
“Send yourself a copy of all your e-mails that go out to others: as with listening to your own voice on tape, opening and reading your messages can help you ‘overhear’ yourself, the false notes and the true ones.”
6. Find a writing style partner.
“Don’t give each other notes about whether your writing ‘works,’ whether your themes are valid, your characters believable, or even whether your voice is mellifluous. Those things are all important, and it’s undoubtedly helpful to get feedback about them — but when style is the issue, they change the subject. Instead, when looking at the other person’s stuff, focus in on sentences, or phrases, or words. Where the writing seems tired or cliched, where the word used means something other than what was intended, where the phrasing is awkward, wordy or grammatically questionable, mark it, and suggest an alternative.”
7. Visit familiar territory.
“Take an hour (could be a little more, could be a little less) and write a page or so about your father or your mother. Or you could tackle any other subject, as long as you know a lot about it and it means a lot to you. Don’t worry about making it an essay with a beginning, middle and end; just concentrate on imparting some true things. Once you’ve got your page down, transform it, over the course of a week or so. Specifically, take it to extremes, in multiple versions. Try it with no contractions and with contractions at every possible opportunity; with short sentences and complex ones; with one-sentence paragraphs and all in one paragraph; with short Anglo-Saxon words and with long Latinate ones; with literal, straightforward language and with as many metaphors, similes and rhetorical questions, as much irony and hyperbole and alliteration, as you can pack in. Then experiment a little with compression and slackness. Do one version that’s as long as you can reasonably make it and another that’s as short as possible, each time trying to impart the same sense.
When you’re done, you’ll have a lot of really bad stuff. But you’ll also have some useful lessons, the first being that no good style, whether relatively anonymous or relatively distinctive, is uniform. It’s always going to be a mix of elements, and the key to the style is in the proportion. You’ll also have a better feel for the proportions that work best and feel best for you: your style.”