You Keep Using That Word

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Almost every “how to write” book I’ve ever seen has a section devoted to style. Or sometimes voice. Or sometimes one for each. Frequently with vaporous declarations about it arising from the writer’s soul in some mysterious, half-divine fashion.

I have a secret to share.

When it comes to this subject, I don’t think we — writers as a group — have any idea what we’re talking about.

Okay, maybe that’s an unfair way to put it. More accurate to say, I don’t think we have any agreement as to what we’re talking about. I have seen writing advice that says style can’t be taught, but voice can. I have seen writing advice that says voice can’t be taught, but style can. About the only thing the advice has in common from book to book is that sooner or later, that vaporous declaration will show up. Style, or voice — whatever term the author has decided to use — is innate. No teacher can show you the way. The style that can be described is not the true style. This journey, you must make alone.

It’s impossible to pin down the truth of that statement because we can’t even agree on what it is we’re discussing. Is style/voice/whatever (henceforth to be known as SVW) a matter of word choice? Sentence structure? Imagery? Motifs the author returns to again and again? Every last one of those things can be described and taught. Apparently statistical analysis of a writer’s work will show that they have a characteristic vocabulary. Okay, fine: so give me a list of Jane Austen’s characteristic vocabulary, I’ll sit down and diagram a thousand of her sentences, and when that’s done I’ll produce prose more or less indistinguishable from hers. Will I enjoy doing it? No, probably not, because it would be a mechanical exercise rather than my own preference. But I can learn those aspects of SVW — just as technical writers learn a job-specific SVW, and scientists learn one, and legal writers learn one, and so on. Likewise, I could sit down and study what kinds of conflicts Austen presents, and how she handles them, and I could slavishly imitate her. If that’s what we mean by SVW, I can learn that, too.

So maybe what we mean by SVW is just “personality.” I’d go batty forcing myself to write exactly like Jane Austen, because she and I are very different women. But then arguing for how you need to “develop your voice” (by some mysterious, vaporous process) doesn’t really get us anywhere, does it? Such advice is like a less-useful version of the kind of self-help book that purports to teach you “how to be interesting.” I mean, at least those books counsel you to learn a repertoire of half a dozen jokes you can trot out at cocktail parties, or whatever. Writing books just wave their hands in the air. It’s the last refuge of the Romantic ideal of creative genius, perhaps. We’ve accepted that there’s a craft to writing, and much of that craft can be anatomized to one degree or another (though internalizing its processes is easier said than done), but this final thing is a spiritual enigma. Wooooo! <waves hands in the air>

I’m going to be teaching a three-week writing course this summer, and you know what doesn’t have a place on my syllabus? SVW. Because I think my students will gain more from me avoiding vapor. We’ll play around with word choice and sentence structure and imagery and motifs, and I’ll encourage them to write silly things and serious things and horrific things and things that make them go “wow.” They’ll learn how to approach different kinds of story, and acquire skills that can be applied in different ways. Somewhere in there, they’ll figure out what makes their brains light up. And some aspect of that, perhaps, another writer would identify as “style.” Another would call it “voice.” For my own part, I don’t much care.