From the Latin word stylus, "a pointed instrument used for writing." That, according to our glossary entry, is what the word style meant 2,000 years ago. Nowadays, definitions of style point not to the instrument used by the writer but to characteristics of the writing itself:
The way in which something is said, done, expressed, or performed: a style of speech and writing. Narrowly interpreted as those figures that ornament discourse; broadly, as representing a manifestation of the person speaking or writing. All figures of speech fall within the domain of style.
But what does it mean to write "with style"? Is style a quality that writers can add or remove as they please? Is it, perhaps, a gift that only some writers happen to be blessed with? Can a style ever be good or bad, correct or incorrect--or is it more a matter of taste? Is style a kind of decorative sprinkle that's added to a piece of writing--or is it instead an essential ingredient of the writing?
Here, under six broad headings, are some of the diverse ways in which professional writers have responded to these questions. We open with remarks from Henry David Thoreau, an artful stylist who expressed indifference toward style, and conclude with two quotations from novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who insisted that style is all that matters.
Style is Practical
- "Who cares what a man’s style is, so it is intelligible, as intelligible as his thought. Literally and really, the style is no more than the stylus, the pen he writes with; and it is not worth scraping and polishing, and gilding, unless it will write his thoughts the better for it. It is something for use, and not to look at."
(Henry David Thoreau)
- "People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style."
Style Is the Dress of Thoughts
- "Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage."
(Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield)
- "A man's style should be like his dress. It should be as unobtrusive and should attract as little attention as possible."
(C. E. M. Joad)
Style Is Who and What We Are
- "The style is the man himself."
(George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon)
- "The old saying of Buffon’s that style is the man himself is as near the truth as we can get--but then most men mistake grammar for style, as they mistake correct spelling for words or schooling for education."
- "When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man."
- "Style is the hallmark of a temperament stamped upon the material at hand."
- "The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules--that it is a living and breathing thing with something of the devilish in it--that it fits its proprietor tightly yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as seriously an integral part of him as that skin is. . . . In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a man, and cannot be anything else."
- "You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being."
(Katherine Anne Porter)
Style Is Point of View
- "Style is the perfection of a point of view."
- "Where there is no style, there is in effect no point of view. There is, essentially, no anger, no conviction, no self. Style is opinion, hung washing, the caliber of a bullet, teething beads."
- "Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward."
Style Is Craftsmanship
- "What's important is the way we say it. Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It's not what we say but how we say it that matters."
- "Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style."
- "The web, then, or the pattern, a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style."
(Robert Louis Stevenson)
- "The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off."
- "The style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise."
- "One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness."
Style Is Substance
- "To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can't be separated."
- "Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language."
(Cardinal John Henry Newman)
- "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."
- "Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being."
(Alfred North Whitehead)
- "Style is not something applied. It is something that permeates. It is of the nature of that in which it is found, whether the poem, the manner of a god, the bearing of a man. It is not a dress."
- "Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash. . . .
"All my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter. . . . For me 'style' is matter."