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Style Essays: Introduction

I am enamored of style. Style—that destination, that endgame, of what I call the writer’s craft—encompasses the quality of a writer’s voice, the play of their words, the melody of their language. It is the poetry in their prose. Style is sometimes, perhaps often, subtle or inconspicuous, but other times it is overtly prominent. Every writer, I believe, in one way or another, is on a lifelong quest for style. It is a writer’s linguistic fingerprint.

 

I talk a lot about style when I edit. I like to push writers in directions that I hope will enhance their language stylistically. Of course, I try to help each writer find their own individual voice. Not every writer should—or dear god, could!—write like Hemingway or Joyce or Woolf or Nabokov or Bass or Dillard or any of the most stylish of the stylists. But each writer must consider the way their prose sounds. Whether writing twenty pages about the trembling of a single leaf on a sunlit field, or the end of the universe as we know it, the way the words fit together, the way the mind’s ear hears them, is important, is, some would say, of tantamount importance. This is style.

 

I should be clear that my focus on style does not mean that other aspects of narrative—plot, characters, dialogue, themes, etc.—are inconsequential. Of course these things must (for most writing) work. But I want to zoom in on the smaller elements—the molecules, the atoms—of language. I think by focusing on these elements—by extracting them, by pulling them apart, by examining them (to continue my metaphor) under a microscope—writers will begin to develop craft and, by extension, style.

 

But how—but where—to begin? What are these molecules, these atoms? With great trepidation—and with an admission of certain incompleteness—I have identified eight common elements of style:

  1. Sentences: Structures and Combinations

  2. Descriptive Language and Specificity

  3. Figurative Language

  4. Repetition

  5. Word Play

  6. Dialect

  7. Thickness

  8. Form

 

In the weeks and months (I hope not years!) ahead, I will be tackling these topics, in essay form, one at a time. My hope is that each can be taken separately, and I will do my best to write them such that you might start anywhere in the list, and skip any topics that don’t interest you. Not all writers, for example, will want to write dialectically (dialect is perhaps the least common element of contemporary style), and many writers, I’m sure, couldn’t care less about word play (Nabokov: turning over in grave). So feel free to jump around. (I do, however, recommend at least skimming each essay. You never know what you might find.)

 

In the past, to help exemplify aspects of style and craft, I have often referred to stories in the fantastic Best American Short Stories of the Century (ed. John Updike) (BASSC). In the following essays on style, I will be using a newer, and, it should be said, more diverse, anthology: The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story (ed. John Freeman). This book—what I’ll simply call “the Penguin book” hereon—begins and ends much later than BASSC (1975 vs. 1915 and 2019 vs. 1999, respectively). The Penguin book also includes some of my favorite contemporary writers who were not included in BASSC: Rick Bass, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, George Sanders, and so on.

 

So to get the most out of these essays of mine, I recommend—I dare say, insist—that writers get a hold of this book. It is an excellent source of spectacular writing, truly the best short story writers of the past (almost) fifty years. (I also recommend this book to writers of creative nonfiction; because CNF generally employs the same elements of style found in literary fiction, I think the book is indispensable.)

 

Before getting started with my first essay (coming soon), I want to share stories—twelve of the thirty-seven in the book—that I consider standouts. Each exemplifies at least one element of style. I will, of course, discuss and quote from each of these stories in the essays, but if you’re looking for a cheat sheet of sorts, or if you’re just eager to get started, the following might be helpful (it is in chronological (and paginal) order):

  • “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (p. 17): Read this one for its details, its sentences, its brilliance.

  • “Salvador Late or Early” by Sandra Cisneros (p. 123): Great sentences, with interesting structures and melodic variations.

  • “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (p. 125): This piece is overflowing with style, especially sentence structure, descriptive language, repetition, thickness, and form. You could basically just read this one story and be done with it. In fact, just read the section beginning on page 135. It’s about a page and a half. It is perfection.

  • “The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (p. 227): Bass is a—let us say, the—master of descriptive and figurative language. Few writers manage such beauty and grace.

  • “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri (p. 242): A wonderful display of descriptive language. Indeed, the narrative is largely driven by these details. I also often use this story as an example of subtlety.

  • “The Penthouse” by Andrew Holleran (p. 262): Read for its use of specificity and figurative language.

  • “The American Embassy” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (p. 322). Filled with examples of simple, but effective, repetition. Repetition is one of the easiest—and, among beginning writers, least used—elements of style.

  • “The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon (p. 334): Read for its descriptive language (details and specificity), figurative language, and interesting vocabulary (word play). It’s also superb.

  • “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell (p. 354): Great use of descriptive language and word play (especially interesting vocabulary).

  • “The Last Thing We Need” by Claire Vaye Watkins (p. 373): Nothing groundbreaking about the epistolary form, but this story is still a fine example of formal experimentation. It’s also a great.

  • Diem Perdidi” by Julie Otsuka (p. 419): A perfect example of how repetition can be a stylistic tool.

  • “The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff (p. 437): Completely drenched in style, especially figurative language and (as with all of these stories) carefully crafted sentences.

 

Finally, I should mention that I am planning to compile these essays into something of a companion guide to the Penguin book someday. Thus, so that I don’t give the farm away with the horses, I’m going to abridge the Submitit blog versions of these essays. If you follow the blog, you’ll know if and when this companion book sees the light of day. Like much of our literary endeavors, it is, at this point, but a gleam—perhaps a growing gleam—in its maker’s eye.

 

Stay tuned for my first essay on sentence structures and combinations (in three parts).


 

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Blood Orange Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and many others, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He has published a novella from Buttonhook Press.


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