What Matters More Than Style

When I was working on the thesis for my master’s degree in English, I prided myself on the fact that I was so immersed in Edith Wharton’s works that I was actually starting to write like her (or so my thesis advisor, who liked Wharton equally as much, proudly told me). Years later, during the first semester of my MFA program, I mentioned this fact to one of the faculty who led my first peer review session.

His response wasn’t quite what I expected: “Who writes like that anymore? Just because you like Edith Wharton doesn’t mean you should write like her. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.”

I was quite literally taken aback, and I remember mumbling something and then walking away, a bit crestfallen. What, after all, was so wrong with sounding like my favorite author?

Unfortunately, flowing sentences with exquisite details and deep reflections aren’t what the mainstream reading public prefers…or so the argument goes. But as Shreya Vikram notes, not all writing should follow the terse form that such writers as Hemingway created. “The black-and-white advice given to all writers [to write short, action-driven prose for the sake of story alone] doesn’t make sense,” Vikram states. “We can’t all be Hemingway. We don’t need to be Hemingway.”

Thank goodness for that. To attract today’s readers, writers don’t need to follow one style over another. What they do need to consider, though, are the insights that Vikram offers in her post.

Foremost, writers should pay attention to details. Whether capturing the seemingly inconsequential or creating a profound image with the simple, writers should focus on the small details. A unique perspective, for instance, or an odd feature…those are what make a character or scene stand apart from the rest.

Just as important is rhythm. Vikram advises writers to read their prose out loud to note the ebb and flow of sentences, phrases, and word pairings (see the Gary Provost example she shares from 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing).

Vikram also advises writers not to show off, both with language and purpose. When, for instance, writers use words that most people wouldn’t, they come across as pretentious. Similarly, when they write to show how “good” they are, they miss the point. “Your job as an artist is to disappear,” Vikram states. “Let your prose speak for itself.”

Indeed, as my dear Edith Wharton would say, readers don’t care so much about how a story is written as they care about the story itself. When what is written on the page becomes a cathedral in a reader’s mind, when it makes a reader pause, when it makes a reader feel…that’s when a writer has succeeded. That’s when prose is written both for the sake of story and for the sake of art.

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