Kevin Power

Some Notes On Style

Kevin Power

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A few years ago, I attended an event for writers at which the convenor posed a worthwhile question: What aspect of writing never gets discussed at literary events? There were no non-writers present. We were, so to speak, backstage. We could be honest. People mentioned various things. Confidence (how to keep writing against the suspicion that you can’t write). Money (never enough). It occurred to me to say: “Style. How much time I spend looking for synonyms. Or repetitions. All the time you spend fiddling with sentences, and what you think about while you’re doing it. Nobody ever asks about that.”

Murmurs. Nods. The conversation moved on. (Back to money, probably.) But I kept ruminating – wondering, I suppose, what I might actually say, if somebody ever did ask me about all the time I spend fiddling with sentences. 

I had been thinking, as I spoke, about my novel-in-progress. I had been looking at the manuscript that day, and had come across a sentence that used both wondering and wandering. Ugh, I thought: you can’t have wondering and wandering in the same sentence. Not unless you’re trying to be deliberately whimsical or nostalgic. I thought of the title of Langston Hughes’s autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, which has always struck me as a bit too cutesy, an earworm, somehow tonally askew. I looked at my sentence again. It began: “I had been wandering around Stephen’s Green, wondering…” Either wondering or wandering would have to go. Perhaps I could replace wondering with pondering. Nope: no use trading a half-rhyme for an actual rhyme (wandering/pondering). That would just compound the problem. So, I needed a synonym for wandering.

But which synonym? Strolling was no good. My narrator was not in a strolling mood. His life had just collapsed – his banker father arrested, his college fees unpaid. Strolls are taken by peppy, confident characters – above all, by characters who are not flat broke. I’m just popping out for an evening stroll. Solvent aristocrats in Henry James novels stroll. My narrator was a loser with no cash. Slouching? Better: he was definitely in a mood to slouch. And teenagers slouch, so slouching would suit my adolescent-in-spirit narrator perfectly.

On the other hand, slouching carries with it some heavy Yeatsian baggage – when you slouch, literarily speaking, Bethlehem somehow looms. And then, there was the unignorable fact that I just didn’t like the sound of it: I had been slouching around Stephen’s Green, wondering… Ugly. An unhappy clash of sibilants: slouching, Stephen’s… Okay, then: what about dawdling? Dawdling was good. It’s a trivial-sounding word. Toddlers dawdle. If making my narrator sound like a teenager was good, making him sound like a two-year-old was even better. Maximum immaturity. All right: I had been dawdling around Stephen’s Green, wondering

Better. But there was still something missing from this first part of the sentence. Dawdling, by itself, was still (if just faintly) too happy, too upbeat. The sentence needed to evoke lassitude, pointlessness. My narrator was adrift, unmotivated, lost. Lassitude was the first word that occurred to me, so I gave it a try. I had been dawdling around Stephen’s Green, in a state of lassitude, wondering… Strike that. The sentence was now overburdened with clauses. It was going to take too long to make a relatively simple point. Lassitude, if I wanted to use it, would need to be dropped in adverbially. Hence: I was dawdling lassitudinously around Stephen’s Green, wondering…

But this wouldn’t work, either. It was too far from ordinary speech. Nobody says dawdling lassitudinously, unless they are, or want to sound like, a wanker. Then again, there was a distinct possibility that lassitudinously was not, in fact, a real word. Microsoft had its doubts: the word on my screen was underlined in red. And although I do not and never have trusted Microsoft’s ability to correctly identify actual English words, by now I had doubts of my own. Over to Google. Is lassitudinously a word? Aha: instances of usage are extremely sparse. It’s a wanker word. That takes care of that.

Time to simplify, if possible. An adverb, in common use, meaning more or less the same as lassitudinously. What about lazily? I had been lazily dawdling around Stephen’s Green, wondering… But if I already had dawdling, did I really need lazily? Wasn’t a certain degree of laziness already heavily implied by dawdling?

Simpler still, please. Aimlessly. Yes: in common usage, suggests futility, also lassitude. I had been aimlessly dawdling around Stephen’s Green, wondering… That’s it. There was, again, two sibilants in close proximity (aimlessly, Stephen’s). But the emphasis would fall on the first syllable of aimlessly, meaning the sibilants would echo, not clash. The reader’s eye will move swiftly across these words, clocking, in a largely subconscious process, exactly what I want them to clock: here is an immature man with no purpose in life, squandering his day. The half-rhyme (wandering, wondering) has been eliminated, and there has been a small gain in evocative potency. On to the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next chapter… and so on. 

This is what I spend most of my time at the desk doing: looking for the most readable, least ugly combination of words that still conveys a precise meaning. This is what I mean by style. In 1905 Robert Louis Stevenson published an essay that is no longer much read: “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature.” Stevenson was an advocate of the plain style (this is perhaps why his books remain so freshly readable, a century later). But he also understood that the plain style is underwritten by the rules of beauty – that it was the duty of prose “to please the supersensual ear,” and that even the plainest prose should be consciously patterned. He’s worth quoting at length:

Style is synthetic; and the artist, seeking, so to speak, a peg to plait about, takes up at once two or more elements or two or more views of the subject in hand; combines, implicates, and contrasts them; and while, in one sense, he was merely seeking an occasion for the necessary knot, he will be found, in the other, to have greatly enriched the meaning, or to have transacted the work of two sentences in the space of one. In the change from the successive shallow statements of the old chronicler to the dense and luminous flow of highly synthetic narrative, there is implied a vast amount of both philosophy and wit. [...] That style is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler; but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively; or if obtrusively, then with the greatest gain to sense and vigour.

There is, of course, a great tradition of close textual analysis, wherein critics disassemble sentences, unpick their resonances, meditate on word choice, construe suggested meaning. But this is, I think, of only limited use to the working writer, who is looking at sentences, not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Stevenson is more practical. You have something you need to tell, for your story to make sense (“the necessary knot”). You start with your best guess: I was wandering around Stephen’s Green, wondering… You look again. Does wandering/wondering please the supersensual ear? I don’t think so. Try again. Take up “two or more views of the subject at hand.” What’s the context, for this sentence? Does that help you, in your search for a better word? “Style is synthetic”: the effect of smooth readability isn’t casually achieved. Your best guess is not good enough.

The goal isn’t fanciness, or some notion of “beautiful writing.” The goal is, pre-eminently, clarity. I have a suspicion that accidental rhymes and other bits of cackhandedness in prose offend not because they’re ugly (although they are) but because they militate against clarity. Wandering, wondering… The lulling banality of the half-rhyme is simply less evocative than a sentence that takes care not to chime internally.

And again: I’m not interested in a prose style that torques or torments each sentence until it does something visibly peculiar. We have too much of this sort of prose, just now. (Maybe we always did.)  If every sentence is performing acrobatics, all you see are the acrobatics. The primary business of prose is to transmit information clearly. Funnily enough, though, it’s the rules of beauty (elegance, grammatical precision, the unexpected but judiciously chosen word) that enable it to do this. Style isn’t performance. It’s conversation. Your first duty, when you write a sentence, is to keep up your end of the conversation. Don’t be overbearing. Don’t be ugly. Don’t be coy.

At literary events, nobody ever asks about this. Perhaps if, one day, someone does, I might be able to give them the rudiments of a useful answer. 

Kevin Power is the author of two novels, Bad Day in Blackrock (2008) and White City (2021). He teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. 

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