What’s my style, anyway?
This week we read a variety of works on writing style. It was interesting to go back and read Strunk and White’s essay on style again, many years and many words after the first reading. And it is an even more interesting task to answer the question of the week: what’s my style, anyway? That wasn’t specifically the question we are asked to answer, but it is my summary of the exercise.
Actually, I realize after reading our assigned writings that the question of style almost never crosses my mind. Because I have done so many different types of writing (almost everything except fiction and poetry), the primary concern for me is audience: who is my audience, what is their context, what are they trying to find out from my writing. Side by side with the question of audience for me is a question that is a hold over from my old technical writing days: how will the audience seek the information; what questions do they need answered; what do they need to understand about the subject at hand. And finally comes a consideration that approaches the question of style: what do I have to say and how can I say it so that the most people in the target audience will have the most answers provided to their questions in a way that most of them will not just understand but embrace. In the matter of reflective theological writing, I also include the question: how can I communicate my thoughts in a way that becomes useful for further consideration for the reader.
So with that self-realization firmly in place, I set about examining my stylistic profile with the tool provided, a tool taken from our text Writing Theology Well and adapted from another work, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. I have chosen my essay “The weight of it all...” from my other blog, Singing Along the Journey, as my sample for analysis. The analysis tool asks that I look at how I use words, how I use sentences, and how I use paragraphs.
Words. Because this piece was very much a feeling or heart-based piece, I made use of simple but specific words. I was trained with the belief that a simple word, the simplest word, is the best word. While I do not favor a strictly monosyllabic (or Anglo-Saxon) approach in reflective writing, I also do not see it as an opportunity to show of my extensive vocabulary. Communicating, creating a feeling, creating an atmosphere — these are the things I want to accomplish with a reflective piece such as this one. Simple words are often the most graphic and evocative. I am not a big user of adjectives, but I am quite fond of adverbs. Figures of speech, cliches, jargon, technical language — these are words and phrases I strive to avoid. I do have a tendency to use qualifier words and not always with purpose (for example, “really quickly” — really is totally unnecessary). In this piece and in general, my writing tends towards the descriptive voice and I am often most comfortable as an observer and commentator on my own life. That voice most likely grew from the belief that my best mission is my own life and my best mission work is my willingness to share my own experiences and thoughts.
Sentences. My sentence length seems to average between 15 and 20 words in this particular piece, although some are much longer and some are much shorter. I tend toward the use of both simple sentences and complex sentence structures (I do love my clauses and my commas and my dashes). What I see most in my sentence structure is a strong sense of rhythm, not a term that I have seen used in any of the reading or discussion of style. In this type of writing, I realize that I am always considering the sound of the words, the sound of the sentences. I hear the words read aloud in my head and maybe because I am a musician, the rhythm of that reading is important to me. As I read this piece, I realize that many sentence structure choices are made based on what the words sound like to me. And, I use a wide variety of sentence structure: sometimes a simple subject/verb/object structure, sometimes inverted order, often subordinate clauses. And I love lists. A good example is the following sentence: “I have been feeling very much like it was a year wasted: full of fits and starts, full of trying things and failings, full of no’s, not yes’s. ”
Paragraphs. I am a believer in the short paragraph. Sometimes, I probably make the decision to break a paragraph visually — I notice that may paragraph size is consistent, even though the sentence length varies between 2 and 4 sentences in each paragraph. Each paragraph has a clear topic sentence that in most cases also functions as a transitional sentence often answering a concern stated in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. I realized a short time ago that I was falling into the heavy use of logical connectors at the beginning of paragraphs. I am happy to see that in this piece I relied less heavily on logical connectors and made better use of full transitional concepts.
As I reviewed these earlier writings of mine, I also noticed that I have a preferred average length — most essays are between 850-1000 words in length. I’m not sure, but that might be an old habit from journalism days.
In summary, I think my writing stands up well to the guidelines offered by Strunk and White and by Orwell, with a couple of exceptions: I do not always put myself in the background (Strunk and White, p. 70) but for this type of writing that seems to be bad advice, I do occasionally adopt a “breezy manner” (Strunk and White, pg. 73) although I hope that I am able to avoid egocentricity, I do like a good foreign word once in awhile (Strunk and White, p. 81) but only when appropriate and I am not given to the use of metaphor (dying or otherwise) and do my best to avoid meaningless words. I accomplish what I set out to do: my writing sounds like, well, me.
I guess that makes the answer to the question: my writing is Susan style. That is the best I can hope to achieve.