Style:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Every style that is not boring is a good one.” Voltaire

“Style is a matter of coming to terms with language.” Elizabeth Bowen

“If any man wishes to write a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.” Goethe

“For each writer there can only be one style—his own.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Style lives in the sentence.” Philip Gerard

“An individual style is developed as much by resistance as by emulation.” John Gardner

“The major characteristics of style, in so far as style is a technical matter of the building and placing of words, are given by the language itself, quite as inescapably, indeed, as the general acoustic effect of verse is given by the sounds and natural accents of the language. These necessary fundamentals of style are hardly felt by the artist to constrain his individuality of expression. They rather point the way to those stylistic developments that most suit the natural bent of the language.” Edward Sapir

“The merit of such a style as W.H. Hudson’s or George Moiré’s is that it does with ease and economy what the language is always trying to do.” Edward Sapir

“It is strange how long it has taken the European literatures to learn that style is not an absolute, a something that is to be imposed on the language from Greek or Latin models, but merely the language itself, running in its natural grooves, and with enough of an individual accent to allow the artist’s personality to be felt as a presence, not as an acrobat.” Edward Sapir [My italics—UW]

“There are almost as many natural ideals of literary style as there are languages.” Edward Sapir

“The structure of the language often forces an assemblage of concepts that impresses us as a stylistic discovery. Single Algonkin words are like tiny imagist poems.” Edward Sapir

“One fusses about style. One tries to write better. One takes pains to be simpler, clear and succinct. One aims at rhythms and balance. One reads a sentence aloud to see that it sounds well. One sweats one’s guts out. The fact remains that the four greatest novelists the world has ever known, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoi and Dostoievsky, wrote their respective languages very indifferently. It proves that if you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write. All the same it’s better to write well than ill.” W. Somerset Maugham

“Know what is and what is not merely fashion; learn what old masters praised highly, although the wisdom of a subtle mind is often scoffed at by the public.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“The brilliant semiprecious stones of popular fashion are as common as beans in the field.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“In our individual working we have the same aims—clearness, truth, evocation, some touch of grace. By keeping those in view, we arrive at style—it may be almost imperceptibly.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Style is not a mere surface to be adorned from without: the spring of it is deep-down, interior. It stays mobile, and stays alive, through its organic relation to its subject.” Elizabeth Bowen

“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.” Oliver Goldsmith

“A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.” W. Somerset Maugham

“Prose is good only if it sounds easy.” Jacques Barzun

“When we see a natural style, we are quite surprised and delighted, for we expected to see an author and we find a man.” Blaise Pascal

“Style is the dress of thoughts.” Lord Chesterfield

“As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.” E.B. White

“When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper.” E.B. White

“Style is that use of language that creates a vivid, full-color image, with sound and smell and other sensory effects, in the reader’s mind; and that is all. Remember: what lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy.” Isaac Asimov

“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 the writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion. E.B. White

“A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style.” E.B. White

“Young writers often suppose that style is garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” E.B. White

“Style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bold, his lack of it.” William Zinsser

“Good writers are visible just behind their words.” William Zinsser

“Since style is who you are, you only need to be true to yourself to find it gradually emerging from under the accumulated clutter and debris, growing more distinctive every day.” William Zinsser

“A good style is one that conveys the most with the greatest economy of words.” Ayn Rand”

“The pros make strong nouns and dynamic verbs the heart of their style; verbs make their prose quiver.” Constance Hale

“That which can be synopsized in a brief sentence—theme, plot, characterization—is the ‘what’ of a novel or play. Style is the ‘how’—it is that which cannot be synopsized.” Ayn Rand

“I divide the issue of style into two broad categories: the selection of content and the selection of words. The ‘selection of content’ is those aspects of an assignment that a writer chooses to communicate. . . . Would I describe the scenery? include dialogue? narrate their thoughts? That is selection of content. The ‘selection of words’ is what is commonly understood by ‘style’: a writer’s choice of words and methods of constructing sentences.” Ayn Rand

“I never waste a sentence on saying: ‘John Smith meets James Brown.’ That is too easy; it is playing piano with one finger. Say much more, just as clearly—say it in chords, with a whole orchestration. That is good style.” Ayn Rand

“Just as an anthropologist’s presence among the group he is studying can alter the behavior of the group, or as the bombardment of an atom alters the pattern it means to illuminate, so the style in which the artist explores reality may alter the thing explored.” John Gardner

“Style is the most complex of the elements of writing, and must be left to ‘instinct.’” Ayn Rand

“A style comes from the combination of all of a writer’s purposes and premises (and not only his literary ones). You cannot borrow another man’s soul, and you cannot borrow his style. You would only be a cheap imitator.” Ayn Rand

“Write as purposefully and clearly as you can, on your own premises, and your style will develop with practice.” Ayn Rand

“It has been said of Somerset Maugham that he had so little style that that, of it self, was a style.” Barnaby Conrad

As far as style goes, I am a functionalist; if a sentence represents exactly the idea I wish to convey, I am satisfied with it.” James Hilton

“The necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, and individuality.” Evelyn Waugh

“The author has to be good stylist to write the scenes properly; but style is a secondary issue. The best style in the world will not save a plotless story.” Ayn Rand

“I think that’s one of the problems with really elegant writers; you stop reading and start admiring the words. So you lose the narrative flow. I don’t want that to happen.” Joyce Carol Oates

“Avoid clichés like the plague.” Barnaby Conrad

“Two pages—the right two pages—can tell more than four hundred bad ones.” Ted Berkman

You must be able to kill your darlings and edit out your most treasured inspirations if they violate your larger purpose.” Ted Berkman

“About style, the less said the better. Nothing leads to fraudulence more swiftly than the conscious pursuit of stylistic uniqueness.” John Gardner

“Subject matter influences style.” John Gardner

The realistic writer’s way of making events convincing is verisimilitude; the tale writer by the quality of his voice, and by means of various devices that distract our critical intelligence to get what Coleridge called—in one of the most clumsy famous sentences in all of literature—’the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’; the yarn writer tells outrageous lies, and emphasizes both the brilliance and the falsehood of the lie. All three kinds of writing depend heavily on precision of detail.” John Gardner

“To say that a style feels appropriate to a subject is to say, then, that we believe it in some way helps us see the subject truly.” John Gardner

“It’s no good inventing a style that doesn’t come naturally.” John Fowles

“All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, the capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable.” E.B. White

“Style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style.” E.B. White

“The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought.” William Sloane

“Start clean and simple. Don’t try to write pretty or noble or big or anything like that. Try to say just what you mean. This is hard because you have to find out what you mean, and that’s work, real work.” Gertrude Stein

“Clichés are the enemy of taste.” William Zinsser

“Eloquence runs on a deeper current. It moves us with what it leaves unsaid, touching off echoes in what we already know from our reading, our religion and our heritage. Eloquence invites us to bring some part of ourselves to the transaction.” William Zinsser

“Go with what seems inevitable in your own heritage. Embrace it and it may lead you to eloquence.” William Zinsser

“Style can mean a great many things. In one sense, everything urged in this handbook [“Simple & Direct”] is assumed to make for a good style. In another sense, which will come up under Tone [in “Simple & Direct”], a mode or pitch of expression will be called a (plain, high, arrogant, low, facetious) style. Still a third and a most important conception of style is that which has in view the particular mixture of words, constructions, rhythms, and forms of expression characteristic of a writer, and which makes his work recognizable even when unsigned. Style so understood is a natural outgrowth of the person’s mind and not something put together by an act of will.” Jacques Barzun

“When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper.” William Zinsser

“For his [Lincoln’s] style, the plain, undecorated language in which he addresses posterity, is no mere knack with words. It is the manifestation of a mode of thought, of an outlook which colors every act of the writer’s and tells us how he rated life. Only let his choice of words, the rhythm and shape of his utterances, linger in the ear, and you begin to feel as he did—hence to discern unplumbed depths in the quiet intent of a conscious artist.” Jacques Barzun

“Because he was determined to be understood, because he was honest, because he had a warm and true heart, because he had read good books eagerly and not coldly, and because there was in him a native good taste, as well as a strain of imagination, he achieved a singularly clear and forcible style, which took color from his own noble character and became a thing individual and distinguished.” Nineteenth Century editor of Lincoln’s Work [My italics—UW]

“As soon as the story starts its style will establish itself.” John Steinbeck

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