Recently, I've had my nose in The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker and so far I've found it to be a sensible, entertaining and practical writing guide, but then I'm a fan. It's a reminder (for me anyway) to trim back on adjectives and adverbs but not so much as to prevent anything interesting from growing. I think one of my favourite parts has to be Pinker's advice on using a thesaurus, "I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers:'Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool'." That made me giggle.
I love the way style guides try to capture that elusive quality of language, that something, almost like a taste that the reader can savour and return to for more. It's such a difficult thing to put your finger on. In the seminal The Elements of Style, Strunk and White in 1959 remind us of the intangible yet very present nature of writing style, “here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?... There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course.”
This has also made me reflect on writing as a craft, as something that can be shaped and influenced to take on a particular form or tone. Where does that come from? Does it come from hours of rearranging words on a page until it matches some internal echo of what we've read before? Writers are readers first of all, absorbing the language of others, internalising ideas and words like avid, obsessive collectors and creating inventories to draw on in the future. Surely writing has to be built on that and cannot just materialise out of nothing?
And where do style guides fit into this? Books and advice on writing? They prod and poke at prose, nudging it into a particular form. But can good writing really be taught? I have no consistent answer to that question (it often depends on the day). Sometimes yes, it seems that writing is a process like any other that needs to be trained and mastered, that it becomes more refined with practice and with reading. But on other days, it feels like the opposite, that it's either there or not, black or white, like some sudden, romantic gift.
While thinking about all this, I came across Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose via an article on Brainpickings, which affirms that intimate link between reading and writing. Francine Prose's advice to readers is to slow down and pay attention to the craft of writing by examining "the long and magnificent sentences of Philip Roth and the breathtaking paragraphs of Isaac Babel...the brilliant characterisation in Geore Eliot's Middlemarch...and to look to John Le Carre for a lesson in how to advance plot through dialogue."
Francine Prose writes beautifully,
"With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices."Whether it can be learned or not, I don't completely know, but good writing does just what Prose deems necessary: it encourages slowing down and savouring the language out of which it is built.