On writing: Style

In my 30s I interviewed for a part-time position at a college in New Jersey. In the colorized haze of my memories, I remember the professor who interviewed me as one of those annoying academic twits—overly intellectual, but not very smart. In a pinched, nasally voice he told me “Now I’m not going to be upset if a student has a few grammatical errors or run-on sentences here and there. But I am going to be upset if a student is unable to find his or her own voice.”


I have no idea how to teach students to find their own voices, each their own personal writing style. I’ve spent most of my adult life studying writing, but I’m not sure I know what style is, other than to say it’s the way we write. I know it when I see it, and can describe it and analyze it, but I have no idea how it gets that way, and I still can’t honestly say that I have found my own.

I know that when I write I hear a lot of word music in my head, mainly the rhythms and idioms of speech, the way we actually talk, but also rhythms from other writers, from people I’ve known, from movies and TV, from poems and songs, from good jokes (and sometimes bad), from all over. And all these rhythms suggest different ways to write a sentence, help me find different words, and give me room to move.

My twin sister Judy learned to write well in high school, but it took me a little longer—until my late 20s, actually. Then, in our 30s we happened to compare some of our writings and were surprised to find that we sound a lot alike. I know what you’re saying: “Duh! You’re twins!” But we hadn’t read each other’s stuff and never had the chance to influence each other as writers. The only reasonable explanation for the similarities (as opposed to some kind of mystical connection between twins —“twinchronicity,” we call it, dismissively)—the only explanation is that, as twins, we grew up in the same household, at the same time, hearing the same speech rhythms in the way our parents and grandparents talked and in whatever else was going on around us. All those rhythms became part of us and are deeply ingrained in the ways we use language and the ways it uses us.

My style, such as it is, seems like a kind of expansive ventriloquy, an amalgam of so many voices, all different and mixing in indeterminable ways. It’s always the vanity of the dummy to think that he’s the ventriloquist.

Style is like personality itself. We like to think we shape ourselves, and sure, we do in small ways. But becoming who we are is largely an unconscious, accidental process determined by so many influences—our experiences, our families and cultures, that wild crowd we ran with in our teens. We can tinker with it, we can grow more confident, but as Popeye says, I yam what I yam. And as Saint Augustine says: if you try to create yourself, you create a ruin.

So too with writing style. Its genesis is too mysterious a process to identify—or even to foster, except by encouraging students in that most essential step in learning to write: reading. Have students fill their heads with the rhythms of our written language. Other than encouraging that, none of us has an imagination big enough to shape the wild ways that language gets inside us and becomes part of how we think and who we are.

That’s not to say that style is indeterminate. We know it when we read it and can analyze it critically. In general, there seem to be two kinds of authors, vis-à-vis style. There are writers like Hemingway who have a single style that comes to reflect a particular world-view. I love Hemingway’s early works, but his writing is like comfort food; when I want something tasty that will go down easy and satisfy immensely, I read Hemingway.

Then there’s Shakespeare, for whom style is just another variable that changes depending on the job. A writer like Shakespeare takes more chewing. James Joyce is like this, too. It’s impossible to identify Joyce’s style, because he doesn’t have one. He has 50, maybe 100s. His style changes from book to book, from chapter to chapter, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. I think I love Joyce’s writing best of all. But to push our gastronomic metaphor a little further, some of his work—most of “Finnegans Wake,” for example—is utterly delicious, but indigestible.

So what is style?

It’s the way we write. I’m not sure we can say more than that, but maybe we don’t need to. Maybe we can never fully recognize our own styles anyway. Again as with personality, it’s hard for us to see our own. That’s the genius behind Robert Burns’s famous lines in “Ode to a Louse”:

     O would some power the giftie gi’e us [i.e., give us the gift]
     To see ourselves as others see us.

We should forget about finding our own voices. All we need to do is try to say the thing as clearly and precisely as we can. Our voices will be there, whether we know it or not.


• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com


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