Paul Battles, English
What is style?
In writing, the term "style" describes how an author phrases things. Style consists of two elements: diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence patterns).
Four principles of style
1. FIRST, DO NO HARM. Writing is a form of communication. Therefore, aim for clarity of style. If the reader can't tell what you're saying, then the essay's style detracts from its effectiveness.
2. 31 FLAVORS. Baskin Robbins advertises 31 flavors of ice cream because, as the saying goes, "Variety is the spice of life." To carry this principle over to writing, varydiction and sentence patterns. Avoid repeating the same word or phrase. Mix short and long sentences. Once a draft of the paper is done, read it aloud to spot flat, repetitive, or simply uninspired writing.
3. WORDS ARE MONEY. When beginning writers learn that they must compose an essay of a given length, they often adopt a "fill-er-up" mentality. They think, "Ok, I've written 340 words ... just 410 to go!" This leads to bad writing. A better way to frame the problem would be to liken words to money: "I've already spent 340 words. I only have 410 left!" This will automatically sharpen your prose.
4. FORM AND CONTENT SHOULD AGREE. In terms of content, all sentences contain a topic and a statement about that topic. Similarly, with respect to form, every sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. In the normal sentence, everything to the left of the main verb constitutes the subject, while all other words make up the predicate. For example, in "The clause forms the basic unit of the English sentence," "The clause" is the subject and "forms the basic unit of the English sentence" the predicate. When content and form agree, a sentence's subject will contain its topic and the predicate its statement about that topic.
(In case you're curious, here are some statistics for the paragraphs above. SYNTAX: the shortest sentence-not counting the headlines-contains 5 words; the longest, 31. The average sentence length is 11 words. DICTION: the passage contains 4 forms of the verb "to be": are (once) and is (x3). Here are the other verbs: adopt; advertises; agree; aim; avoid; (can't) tell; carry over; compose; consists (x2); constitutes; contain (x2); describes; detracts; do; forms; frame; leads; liken; mix; read; sharpen; think; and vary.)
Sentence Rx examples (all are from actual student papers)
1. Becoming a better hero and a better person through growth is what Campbell describes. [14 words]
Here, "is" serves as main verb. The sentence's subject is "Becoming a better hero and a better person through growth," its predicate "is what Campbell describes."
The most common verbs in English are, in order, be (in its 8 forms: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been), have, and do. Avoid these when possible.
"Becoming a better hero and a better person" is repetitive, redundant, and wordy. Why not just use the technical term, "individuation"?
Combining the aforementioned, we can rewrite the sentence as follows: Campbell describes the hero's growth through individuation. [7 words]
2. There are many times throughout the story when the reader can see Yvain shift more to an eros-driven character. [19 words]
Main verb: "are." Subject: "There." Predicate: "are many times throughout the story when the reader can see Yvain shift more to an eros-driven character." Within this predicate we find another (dependent) clause: "the reader can see Yvain shift more to an eros-driven character." Subject here: "The reader." Predicate: "can see Yvain shift more to an eros-driven character."
Note that the student doesn't want to talk about the reader, but about Yvain, and specifically how he shifts to an eros-driven character. Why not just say that?
Revised: Throughout the story, Yvain shifts to being an eros-driven character [10 words], or As the story unfolds, Yvain exhibits progressively more eros qualities [also 10 words].
3. His inability to rid his fear of death from his mind ultimately determines that Gilgamesh failed in his quest because he did not exhibit any growth as character or overcome the flaw that held him back. [36 words.]
Main verb: "determines." Subject: "His inability to rid his fear of death from his mind." Predicate: "ultimately determines that Gilgamesh failed in his quest because he did not exhibit any growth as character or overcome the flaw that held him back."
This sentence contains the following nouns: inability, fear, death, mind, Gilgamesh, quest, growth, character, and flaw. Its verbs are: rid, determines, failed, exhibit, overcome, and held back. The diction shows greater variety than the previous two examples, but its syntax bogs the reader down.
Revised: Gilgamesh fails his quest because he never overcomes his chief flaw, a fear of death [15 words], or Because he never overcomes his fear of death, Gilgamesh does not grow and therefore also fails his quest [18 words].
4. I relate this to the idea of the ferryman that Campbell refers to since Enkidu is escorting Gilgamesh across a vast amount of unknown land, similar how some stories talk about a ferryman escorting a hero across a mysterious body of water. [42 words.]
Main verb: "relate." Subject: "I." Predicate: everything that follows "I."
At the heart of this sentence lies a comparison between Enkidu, who accompanies Gilgamesh to the Cedar Forest, and Campbell's Ferryman, who often escorts heroes across a mysterious body of water. Again, why not just say this?
Revised: Just as Campbell's Ferryman escorts heroes across a mysterious body of water, so Enkidu accompanies Gilgamesh over unknown terrain to the Cedar Forest. [23 words.]
5. In this way, we can therefore see that Enkidu's meeting with Shamhat did not follow the common pattern of the Meeting with the Goddess. [24 words.]
Main verb: "can see." Subject: "we." Predicate: everything that follows "we."
As with the previous sentence, the first-person reference ("we") makes the sentence start with a "false topic." The real topic is Enkidu's encounter with Shamhat, which does not follow the common pattern (= archetype) of Meeting with the Goddess. Once again, let's state this directly.
Revised: Thus, Enkidu's encounter with Shamhat does not follow the archetypal Meeting with the Goddess. [14 words.]
Your turn. The sentences below are from actual student papers. Revise them so that they obey the four principles of style described above. Include a word count for your revision.
1. Throughout the "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," it is obvious that there is only one female character present in the story and is none other than Helen Stoner. [29 words]
2. In conclusion, London's story shows us that it is not just a surprise that the man was meant to die, but that it was a foreshadowed death, so many points that he states are purposely used to make the reader think about the end of the story; it is not simple to do, but all these clues demonstrated that the protagonist was meant to die, and it was almost too obvious to the reader that that was what was going to happen. [82 words]
3. The symbols of fire and warmth are seen from the very beginning of this story, when it was described how the sun was not visible from where the man was traveling, while snow and the idea of the cold, is another symbol that is used very prominently in this short story. [51 words]
4. Even the roads that run through the rich neighborhood of the Sheridans and the poor neighborhood of the Scots are different colors, when Laura goes from the rich side where her family lives, where "the road gleamed white," to "the lane began, smoky and dark," when she crosses the street and walks into the working-class neighborhood of the Scots. [59 words]
5. Although it may not stick out when it is first read, further analysis will reveal that in Arthur Conan Doyle's story of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," he incorporates a melodrama within the story's overall mystery plot. [38 words]
Re-read your first paper. Find 5 sentences that could benefit from revising. For each, provide the sentence, the word count, and your revision. Good candidates are long, redundant, unclear, and/or just boring sentences.