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Richard Nordquist

Ursula K. Le Guin on Style

By May 3, 2013

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In an article published 40 years ago, American author Ursula K. Le Guin had this to say about style, the most elusive quality of writing:

Many readers, many critics, and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake, or something added onto the book, like frosting on the cake. The style, of course, is the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is a recipe. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.

This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction; and absolutely true of fantasy.

In saying that the style is the book, I speak from the reader's point of view. From the writer's point of view, the style is the writer. Style isn't just how you use English when you write. It isn't a mannerism or an affectation (though it may be mannered or affected). It isn't something you can do without, though that is what people assume when they announce that they intend to write something "like it is." You can't do without it. There is no "is" without it. Style is how you as a writer see and speak. It is how you see: your vision, your understanding of the world, your voice.

This is not to say that style cannot be learned and perfected, or that it cannot be borrowed and imitated. We learn to see and speak, as children, primarily by imitation. The artist is merely the one who goes on learning after he grows up. If he is a good learner, he will finally learn the hardest thing: how to see his own world, how to speak in his own words.
(Ursula K. Le Guin, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," 1973. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. by Susan Wood. Ultramarine, 1980)

To learn more about this critically acclaimed writer of fantasy and science fiction, see Mark Wilson's interview with Ursula K. Le Guin (at About.com Sci-Fi/Fantasy) and Lauren Jankowski's biographical sketch (at About.com Women's History).

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Image: Ursula K. Le Guin


May 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm
(1) Darkenwulf says:

I am an unpaid professional reader with Kindle books and over a hundred reviews to my name. Style is what strikes me when I read a book for a review quest or simply for pleasure. The writer’s style is intrinsic and the affected ones can come off very badly.

May 16, 2013 at 1:22 am
(2) jennifer says:

The more you read a certain author the more you’ll pick up that author’s style of thinking and writing and even use that style in your everyday speech and your emails. As you turn to another author, the influence of the previous author wanes and you start thinking, speaking, and writing like the current author. It’s like an accent, you pick it up unconsciously when living in a country and when you go to another country you drop the accent and style of the previous country and pick up the accent and style of the current one.

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