The bones from which…


I have started to listen to the audiobook version of TE Lawrence’s classic “seven pillars of wisdom”. As I was out running, never a comfortable pursuit for a man of my generous proportions, I was utterly hypnotised by the beautiful and confident writing style of the foreword. Lawrence, (of Arabia fame), uses an almost classical style, balancing the weight and power of his words, with the humbleness of a man who has read and learned widely enough to be aware of the limits of any one man’s words.

Here is the paragraph that first arrested my attention:

“In these pages the history is not of the Arab movement, but of me in it. It is a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history, and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt. We were fond together, because of the sweep of the open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The moral freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up in ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

Naturally this has turned my mind to the fascinating question of writing style. That different writers have a writing style, like an accent or a vocabulary seems to me to be self-evident. To read the short and spare sentences of James Thurber, getting succinctly to their humorous point, could not be reasonably compared to the plump and self-consciously grand sentences of Walter Scot. The question for me is about how the style of a writer develops? What are the feedback mechanisms that forge style from the raw material of childrens’ writing. If I am honest, whatever writing style I have evolved as a blogger, has formed without my awareness of key learning moments. It has seemingly arrived in my consciousness fully formed but not really understood. How odd when writing is the very expression of our thoughts and being. I confess to being surprised that I have given this so little thought in terms of learning.

I Suppose some of the elements are fairly obvious:

  • The sentence structure and length seems characteristic of a writing style. On reflection, I have had feedback on this; generally that my sentences are too long, although this is in a professional writing context. (Policy documents, business letters etc.)
  • How personal and intimate your writing style is as opposed to very formal or even third person writing. I have I suppose had recent, informal feedback on this indicating that my style is generally personal. I may have to ask Steve about this?
  • Is it serious and purposeful, or more reflective and relaxed?
  • How regular and distinct is the use of humour?
  • Vocabulary tells you a lot about where a writer is coming from. Is the piece direct and simple or is it full of “intellectual” vocabulary.
  • How much use is made of use of metaphor and imagery?

You get the point I’m sure. If someone is learning to write under a teacher or in a reflective group, I’m imagine that the feedback about these and similar points is regular. For most workplace writing, or even blogging, that feedback is probably infrequent. I would certainly be interested to get more of it these days, since I find myself enjoying the process more than I ever expected too. No feedback may equal little improvement! I did realise recently after reading an article on novel writing, that the exclamation mark is frequently overused! oops! guilty! I have tried to limit them since that article!!!

There is also a mathematical analysis of style available. This looks at things like sentence length, average word length, number of adjectives, phrase length after semicolons etc. Essentially your writing style could be reduced to a set of numbers which would express readability and directness. I would quite like my writing to be run through those algorithms, but I suspect it wouldn’t tell me much that I don’t already know. I may however have made a loud exclamation at my superfluous punctuation quotient! Oops! There I go again!

All this aside, what really interests me is how these styles develop? Is it simply a function of your childhood reading? Do those of us who read widely as children tend to develop a wider vocabulary? Do we tend to develop a style that arises from our favourite writing as we grow older? Is there a personality element at work here, with more conscientious personalities writing more simple and grammatically correct forms, with the adventurous personalities playing with linguistic style more as a form of self expression? Is there a difference with writing which expresses the first-person voice in terms of your personality spilling into your text? I am learning that I don’t really understand these mechanisms, and that they utterly fascinate me.

How can we develop style If we don’t understand it?


Image from the wonderful wikipedia. Thanks