In writing, style matters. Our favorite writers often entertain, move, and inspire us less by what they say than by how they say it. In The Sound on the Page, acclaimed author, teacher, and critic Ben Yagoda offers practical and incisive help for writers on developing and discovering their own style and voice. This wonderfully rich and readable book features interviews with more than 40 of our most important authors discussing their literary style, including:
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer
The History of an Idea
We can turn to etymology to understand the origin of the
meaning of style -- but only at the risk of being seriously
misled. The English word style is derived from the Latin
stilus, meaning a pointed instrument for writing. It later came to refer to
what was done with the instrument -- that is, the way words are arranged.
Here's the misleading part: the concept of style was invented by the
Greeks (they called it lexis), and they would never have named it after a
writing tool. All ancient notions about putting words together assumed
that the primary means of communicating them was speech. Sometimes the words were written down, to aid memory or ensure future availability,
but the ultimate means of delivery was oration, not publication. Thus style
for both the Greeks and the Romans was a branch of the art of oratory.
The founder of that art is traditionally considered to be Gorgias, a
native of Sicily who became ambassador to Athens in the fifth century BCE
and who was known for his elaborate figures of speech and hypnotic
cadences. He was associated with the school of the Sophists. The name
only later picked up the negative connotations by which we now know it,
but even at the time, Gorgias's emphasis on eloquence and persuasiveness,
allegedly at the expense of truth, brought him criticism from the philosopher
Isocrates, who advocated the study of "eloquent wisdom," rather
than rhetoric, and especially from Socrates and his disciple, Plato. In the
dialogues Gorgias and Phaedrus, Plato set up a distinction between truth
(the ultimate value) and verbal skill (which will tend to obscure truth). In
The Republic, Plato shows Socrates denigrating the very practice of writing;
words that are written in stone, figuratively or literally, can manipulate
emotions and ideas with near impunity, because they cannot be
challenged, and actually obscure or block the path of truth.
These debates took place well over 2,000 years ago, but they have been
replayed ever since. On the one side are Socrates and Plato and their heirs,
who mistrust language from the start because of the irresponsible way it
verges from reality. Words are a necessary evil, they acknowledge -- how
else could we communicate? -- but have to be used cautiously. This camp
conceives of the truth as a series of invisible beings who walk through our
world; the aim of speaking or writing is to dress these forms with perfectly
fitting garments that allow us to see them for the first time. A flamboyant
epaulet or a colorful sash would be extraneous, unseemly, and maybe even
On the other side is the school of Gorgias, which has been less militant
and organized and has made its case more by example than by pronouncement.
A pillar of its position is that the arrangement of words -- that is,
style -- can be an agent not only of persuasion but of beauty and expression
as well. And truth, this side implies and sometimes states, is not as
simple a matter as Plato would have you believe. Instead of imagining language
and reality as separate entities, they ask us to consider the possibility
that neither one can exist without the other.
As was often the case, it fell to Plato's student Aristotle to mediate between the two positions. He devoted an entire treatise, On Rhetoric, to
the subject of eloquence and persuasion; one of its three books concerned
itself with style. Aristotle defended rhetoric as not merely a series of
ornaments or tricks but instead as an essential part of argument, investigation,
and communication. At the same time, his view of style was conservative,
emphasizing clarity, transparency, and decorum. Indeed, some of
the precepts in On Rhetoric could have come straight from Strunk and
Style to be good must be clear ... Clearness is secured by using the
words (nouns and verbs alike) that are current and ordinary ...
A writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking naturally
and not artificially. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary;
for our hearers are prejudiced and think we have some design
against them, as if we were mixing their wines for them ...
Strange words, compound words, and invented words must be used
sparingly and on few occasions ...
A good writer can produce a style that is distinguished without being
obtrusive, and is at the same time clear.
Cicero, a Roman and the greatest ancient commentator on rhetoric and
style, swung the pendulum back the other way. He claimed that Socrates
"separated the science of wise thinking from that of eloquent thinking,
though in reality they are closely linked together." Going further, Cicero
called for a union of res (thought) and verba (words); one cannot speak of
expressing the same thought in different words, he said, because in that
case the thought would be different. Language and style are therefore not
a utilitarian vehicle with which to deliver truth or meaning but an essential
and organic part of both. And consequently, rhetoric is the ultimate art:
"the consummate orator possesses all the knowledge of the philosophers,
but the range of philosophers does not necessarily include eloquence; and
although they look down on it, it cannot but be deemed to add a crowning
embellishment to their art."
In addition to defending rhetoric, Cicero codified the discipline. He
wrote that the orator "must first hit upon what to say; then manage and
marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating
eye for the exact weight ... of each argument; next go on to array them in the adornments of style; after that keep them guarded in his memory;
and in the end deliver them with effect and charm." And thus he laid
out the five faculties of classical rhetoric: invention, arrangement or structure,
style, memory, and delivery ...