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Writers on Writing: The Meaning of Style

"You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself."

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Writers on Writing: The Meaning of Style

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)

Countless books on writing promise to teach us how to improve our style--by varying sentence structures, choosing "appropriate" words, avoiding the passive voice, using (or not using) figurative language, and so on. Yet over the centuries, many professional writers have challenged this attitude toward writing, rejecting the notion that style is a distinct, separable quality that can be taught or learned.

  • Goldsmith on True Eloquence
    True eloquence does not consist, as the rhetoricians assure us, in saying great things in a sublime style, but in a simple style: for there is, properly speaking, no such thing as a sublime style; the sublimity lies only in the things; and when they are not so, the language may be turgid, affected, and metaphorical--but not affecting.
    (Oliver Goldsmith, "Of Eloquence." The Bee, November 17, 1759)

  • Wilde on Styles, Not Style
    Directness of utterance is good, but so is the subtle recasting of thought into a new and delightful form. Simplicity is good, but complexity, mystery, strangeness, symbolism, obscurity even, these have their value. Indeed, properly speaking, there is no such thing as Style; there are merely styles, that is all.
    (Oscar Wilde, "A Note on Some Modern Poets." Woman's World, December 1888)

  • Hardy on a Writer's Temperament
    Any studied rules [of composition] I could not possibly give, for I know of none that are of practical utility. A writer's style is according to his temperament, and my impression is that if he has anything to say which is of value, and words to say it with, the style will come of itself.
    (Thomas Hardy, quoted in The Art of Authorship by George Bainton, 1890)

  • Butler on Simple Straightforwardness
    I should like to put it on record that I never took the smallest pains with my style, have never thought about it, and do not know or want to know whether it is a style at all or whether it is not, as I believe and hope, just common, simple straightforwardness. I cannot conceive how any man can take thought for his style without loss to himself and his readers.
    (Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, edited by Henry Festing Jones, 1917)

  • Porter on Style as Self
    I don't believe in style. The style is you. . . . Style is the man. Aristotle said it first, as far as I know, and everybody has said it since, because it is one of those unarguable truths. You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.
    (Katherine Anne Porter, The Art of Fiction: The Paris Review Interview, 1963)

  • Mailer on Style as Character
    A really good style comes only when a man has become as good as he can be. Style is character.
    (Norman Mailer, The Art of Fiction: The Paris Review Interview, 1964)

  • Baldwin on the Invisible Style
    The hardest thing about writing, in a sense, is not writing. I mean, the sentence is not intended to show you off, you know. It is not supposed to be "Look at me! Look, no hands!" It's supposed to be a pipeline between the reader and you. One condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you're writing.
    (James Baldwin, quoted by Donald M. Murray in Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, 2000)

  • Vidal on Style as Self-Knowledge
    Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.
    (Gore Vidal, quoted in The Daily Express, 1973)

For further thoughts on the subject, see What Is Style?

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