July 21, 2005

Last year at this time, my vacation was brightened considerably by “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing” by Ben Yagoda. 

In it, Yagoda, an author and director of journalism at the University of Delaware, focuses on those qualities that make writing and some writers memorable, whether they’re writing fact or fiction, as well as the reasons others are eminently forgettable.

“Journalists’ worst writing comes at points when they haven’t done enough reporting and have to fudge or generalize; critics’ and essayists’ when they haven’t fully worked out their point or are parroting someone else’s; novelists’ when they haven’t done the imaginative work necessary to make types and stock situations into real people doing real things,” he writes. 

Re-reading “The Sound on the Page” this summer rekindled the same excitement I first felt in college when Oliver Nickerson S.J., a brilliant and demanding English professor, showed how careful reading could reveal the mysteries of literature. In the same accessible fashion, Yagoda combines erudite and often witty analysis, examples of stylistic excellence and infelicities and most important, candid testimony from more than 40 interviews the author conducted with acknowledged stylists whose platforms range from the newspaper humor column (Dave Barry), magazines (Susan Orlean), the novel (Michael Chabon), online writing (Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist James Lileks) and even Supreme Court decisions (Justice Stephen Breyer).

Yagoda is a practical scholar and reflective practitioner interested in cracking the code of memorable writing. His previous books include biographies of a literary tradition (“About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made“) and a legendary humorist (“Will Rogers: A Biography“).

With his colleague Kevin Kerrane, he traced the roots of “new journalism” from the 19th century to the present in “The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism.”

For anyone eager to develop their style, “The Sound on the Page” offers valuable advice (see an excerpt, “Seven Style and Voice Tips“) and, in its final paragraph, words that console and encourage. 

“Anyone who puts pen to paper can have a prose style,” Yagoda concludes. “In almost every case, that style will be quiet, sometimes so quiet as to be detectable only by you, the writer. In the quiet, you can listen to your sound in various manifestations; then you can start to shape it and develop it. That project can last as long as you keep writing, and it never gets old.”

Last week, Yagoda interrupted work on his next book to answer my questions about those elusive literary twins, style and voice, in an e-mail interview.

Chip Scanlan: What is style and why does it matter?

Ben Yagoda: The word has many different meanings. In journalism, the most common one is the AP stylebook, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” kind of style: a sort of correctness, not only in rules about writing “21” instead of “twenty-one,” but of using the active voice, not being wordy, etc. There’s also style as a synonym for flair or verve, the way we speak of someone dressing “with style.” My book is about a third sense: individual style, or that which is distinguished and distinguishing about a particular writer. As to why it matters, let me quote myself:

Think of Michael Jordan and Jerry West each making a twenty-foot jump shot, of Charlie Parker and Ben Webster each playing a chorus of “All the Things You Are,” of Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme each fixing a duck a l’orange, of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson each designing a 20-story office tower on the same corner of the same city, or of Pieter Breughel and Vincent van Gogh each painting the same farmhouse. Everybody understands that the content is constant, frequently ordinary, and sometimes banal; that the (wide) variation, the arena for expression and excellence, the fun, the art — it’s all in the individual style.
The same is, or should be, true about writing.

Lively quotes on style and voice are sprinkled throughout your book. Got a favorite?

My favorite quote, for some reason, comes from my old professor, Harold Bloom. When I asked him (as I asked all my interviewees) about his influences, he said:

[Samuel] Johnson, always, with his antithetical style. Walter Pater and Hazlitt, who endlessly fascinate me, although obviously one cannot write with the baroque splendor of Pater, and once cannot write with that marvelous plain style of Hazlitt. Thomas De Quincey. Kenneth Burke, especially in “The Rhetoric of Religion.” And of course Emerson. When I was in a deep depression in the middle of the journey, in 1965, when I was 35, I came out of it essentially by reading two essayists, Emerson and Freud. But, today, who can be Johnson or Emerson or Hazlitt or De Quincey? It’s too late in the day.
Part of the reason why I like it is that you wouldn’t think anybody actually talks like that. But Bloom does, to the point of alluding to the first line of Dante’s “Inferno” (“in the middle of the journey”) in the middle of an interview.

I also like what Cynthia Ozick said about the most influential American writer of all time: “I hate Hemingway. I absolutely despise Hemingway. I can’t tell you passionately enough how much I hate Hemingway. Those stories in ‘In Our Time,’ cooking at the side of the river — those are housewife stories.”

She slams Hemingway for totally unexpected reasons (usually people rip either his style or his machismo), but ones that make sense in the light of Ozick’s own approach to writing.

What surprised you about the reporting and writing of “The Sound on the Page”?

How unaware of their own styles many writers were. I interviewed more than 40 people for the book — authors as diverse as Dave Barry, Bill Bryson, the poet Billy Collins, Cynthia Ozick, Susan Orlean, Andrei Codrescu, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — and only a handful, I would say, could articulate a really strong sense of their own writing style.

That was surprising, but it really shouldn’t have been. The most common metaphor for style in the sense I was investigating is “voice,” and, like one’s speaking voice, one’s style has a strong unconscious element to it. How many of us could analyze why we sound the way we sound?

That said, every single one of the interviews produced abundant insights and information reflecting on his or her style. For example, I understood Cynthia Ozick’s ornate and polished sentences a little better when I learned that she writes everything with an Expresso felt-tipped pen, and even more when she shared one of her manuscript pages with me (it’s reproduced in the book). On one line, all but three words were crossed out, replaced with a phrase. That phrase was crossed out and replaced with another one, which was crossed out and replaced with another one, which was crossed out and replaced with another one.

What did you learn about your craft from the reporting and writing of “The Sound on the Page”?

Both the books I had written before this one have been combinations of narrative and analysis. This one is all analysis, and I learned how difficult it is to make this kind of material readable page after page. The previous sentence reminds me of a specific example: if I had published my first draft, the word difficult would appear in at least every other sentence. After I ran through every viable synonym (thorny was a favorite), I had to totally recast many sections to make the language fresh.

What do you need to learn next about your craft?

I want the next book after the one I’m working on now (see below) to be all narrative. I’ve never written anything longer than a magazine article of this kind, and I’m eager and curious to see how I’ll make out in a whole book.

“Writers,” you say, “can be divided into two categories: those who obsessively pick apart what they do and those who flee from analysis as if it were a killer wave. The latter group sees writing as art (inspiration), the former as craft (perspiration).” Which camp do you fall in, and why?

Definitely, the picking apart camp. That’s why I’m a teacher, and a critic.

How has writing “The Sound on the Page” affected your writing and teaching of writing?

As far as teaching goes, not very much. The majority of my students aren’t quite ready to think in terms of individual style; they are still trying to master the clarity and correctness of the Strunk and White kind of style. In my own writing, I am more aware of the quiet things that distinguish those of us stylists not on the Hemingway/Faulkner/Tom Wolfe level. We have our own individual styles, even though no one but ourselves and a few close friends may be aware of them. I am, for example, constantly managing my predilection for parentheses: deleting enough so that my prose won’t be too convoluted, but keeping enough so that it will sound like me. I even use parentheses in an interview!

Writers often complain their editors edit out their attempts at style. How can they dodge the delete key? Should they?

The best tack, I think, would be to work on the quiet style I was just referring to: style not as rampaging alliteration (for example) but as expression in subtle deviations from the norm that somehow suit the way you see the world and feel comfortable expressing yourself. What editor would object if you have slightly more parentheses than normal, or your paragraphs are slightly longer than average, or you indulged in a little irony now and then? All those things can be elements of a style.

You write that “There is only one specific, consistently reliable tip writers in training can be given: read your stuff aloud, if not literally, then with an inner voice attended to by the inner ear.” What keeps writers from following this advice?

Probably that it never occurred to them or if it did, that they can churn out copy faster if they don’t take the time to listen.

What’s a persuasive argument for writers who keep their mouths shut when they write?

The most persuasive argument of all: it makes for bad, wooden, unreadable (choose your adjective) prose.

I’m a firm believer in the power of copying out great writing and was heartened to see that you subscribe to that method as well. What would you say to those who consider it a misguided practice?

Try it, you’ll like it! Seriously, the single best means of becoming a strong, original writer and mindful writer is to read, as widely as possible. When you involve your fingers in the reading, you somehow absorb the words on a deeper level. Hey, if it worked for Somerset Maugham, Benjamin Franklin and Chip Scanlan, it’s got to have something going for it.

I can imagine copy editors around the world nodding in agreement at your description of “bad writers”: “the indifferent, inconsistent, the dull, the utterly conventional, the tone deaf, and the grammatically, verbally, and orthographically incompetent. Their prose is certainly noticeable, filled as it is with cliches of all kinds, mistakes of all kinds, rhythmless sentences and paragraphs, repetition in sentence structure, and unintended word repetition. It has a sound, but it is the sound of fingernails on the blackboard, or, at best, a droning monotone.” Where can writers like this find help?

Read, read, read. Read silently and read aloud. Copy out what you read. And then read some more.

Can you describe your latest book project?

I am working on a book about the parts of speech — that’s right, nouns, verbs, interjections and all the rest. It’s called “The Nabokovs’ Nutcracker,” and if you want to find out why, you’ll have to read it.

What have you not been asked in interviews about your book that you’d like to answer?

Here’s a question I’ve been waiting to be asked: Was there anything you thought to include in the book after it went to press? The answer is yes. I realized that I had given short shrift to a major component of personal style — commitment. That is, your own style will appear much more speedily and naturally if you feel strongly about your subject matter. Otherwise, you will much more readily find your way to boilerplate and cliche.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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