A Sense of Style

April 15, 2016 at 4:32 am | Posted in English Language, Winston Churchill, Writing | 3 Comments
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chapbook2Style is ‘the mirror of an artist’s sensibility’. That was what Truman Capote thought. I think style is what comes naturally because it’s an expression of who you are, a projection of your personality. Edith Wharton wrote about the ‘unassailable serenity’ of being at home in ourselves, just as the French talk about being ‘happy in one’s skin’ and when we express this self acceptance with clarity, that is our style.

I heard a young Police Officer say on TV: ‘Oh yes, we got a massive haul of … I mean, a significant amount of cocaine …’ He started off in his own voice, with his own style. This came across instantly with all his enthusiasm of being proud of a job well done, along with his instinctive expression of an exciting narrative. But then he corrected himself to talk in the way they must be trained to talk to the media, which was dry and boring.

The word ‘significant’ is so over-used it has become meaningless. Logic demands that it be used sparingly but it has become a cliché. Everything is ‘significant’ but that means that nothing can be.

It’s a pleasure to see people use their own style orally or in writing. A few stylish favourites follow:

Many years ago, when Japanese restaurants were a rarity in Australia, one of them opened up near where I lived, and they hung a huge banner outside that stated: ‘MORE THAN RAW FISH’.

I love the deadpan style. Stephen Fry does it well, for example, ending QI once with:

 ‘The marriage, which had lasted twenty years, suffered a setback when the husband was killed by the wife.’

Or the letter to the Sydney Morning Herald last January, in which a man complained that oysters are supposed to improve the libido and performance, and ‘I ate a dozen oysters and only nine of them worked.’

I admire the style of the Ohio University English professor who handed a student’s essay back to him with the following on it:

 ‘I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.’

There are more serious aspects to style. Style in our writing matters because clarity and coherence matter. That’s one of the messages in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century (Allen Lane, 2014). When we get our message across with clarity, we are ‘sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose’ (Pinker, p. 8).

It’s worth consulting books like Pinker’s in order to avoid what vast numbers of Australians do (after two generations of the abortive policy of no longer teaching English grammar in schools), that of floundering along with no idea how to wield their native tongue and assuming everyone will know what they mean.

Everyone does not know what they mean because they write with ambiguity at best and gibberish at worst.

Award winning writer, Jill Margo, is a model of clarity even when writing about complicated subjects. She writes about men’s health in the Australian Financial Review and elsewhere. Her style feels natural and down-to-earth yet sensitive and subtle. I reckon if I were a man concerned about his health and read one of her columns I’d feel as if I were in good hands. I interviewed Jill Margo about her Churchill Fellowship for my book, Inspiring Australians. (www.churchilltrust.org.au/shop and she is on page 144.) Churchill himself wrote with great style.

‘When we come across a natural style, we are surprised and delighted, for we expected an author, and we find a man,’ wrote Blaise Pascal. That and the unreferenced quotations above are from The Writer’s Chapbook (Penguin, 1989). Everyone’s in it – Dorothy Parker, Pablo Neruda, Colette, Tom Stoppard … it’s like a box of chocolates: you want another and another but you have to stop because it’s too rich. It covers work habits, sex, films, humour and many more writing-related topics. You can still buy it from Amazon.

The last word on style goes to Dorothea Brande:

‘The important matter is to find your own style, your own subjects, your own rhythm, so that every element in your nature can contribute to the work of making a writer of you.’

(Penguin reprint, 1981, p. 139)


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  1. Penelope is an outstanding creative, inspiring thinker. Her personality is all one would expect, but she is more than that. ‘INSPIRING AUSTRALIANS’ ; Churchill Fellows Book she ‘penned’, scribed, so well contains her character via its information.
    I know only too well the devotion, mind dedication to undertake such works, as I am almost set to publish a, ‘character visual architectural-art medium’. Not easy but like Churchill, like Pen, dedication, devotion to any task will win the day. She tops my tree, clarity of person, community aware of where we are all at, and what can be needed to help others. Thanks for reading this one.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Ken! Keep up your good work and gorgeous glass work and Facebook

  2. I have so enjoyed this article. Witty and leaves me interested and wanting to find out more. When I can plan a trip it MUST include a bookshop – St Ives here I come (fabulous place with not less than 2 brilliant real bookshops run by their owners and also a brilliant public library and caffs where you are welcome to settle down to a read with your coffee). Thank you for international inspiration

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