It’s over a decade now since I fielded a review of a tome I’d written on the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931 – to discover the critic didn’t like my writing style, which she referred to as ‘workmanlike’.
I took it as a complement, though it wasn’t intended as such by the reviewer. She was trying to say this was my level of competence. What she didn’t know was that, for me, style is controllable – I’d applied it deliberately to that book, and with good reason. To me, some subjects benefit from a writing style that is – well, no style.
Let me explain.
One of my favourite authors is Isaac Asimov, doyen of science and science fiction alike – one of the ‘big three’ SF authors of the twentieth century, a prolific writer who turned his hand to any subject and was a master of more fields than most people have had hot dinners.
He did it by a combination of very hard work and staggering talent. But one critique always levelled at him was that he didn’t have a style. He wrote plain vanilla, avoiding what Hemingway called the ‘ten dollar’ words.
That was partly why he was so good. As he explained once, he wrote simply, because he wanted to communicate clearly – did not want the words to get between his meaning and his audience.
For Asimov, in short, writing was unobtrusive. And that, it seems to me, is a good place to be. Unobtrusiveness draws readers into the material. By taking the chore out of reading, the author with the unobtrusive style gains a very powerful tool.
The current master of it, as far as I am concerned, is J K Rowling. Her writing reads simply, clearly, and without flourish – giving so much more power to her stories. And this is not just because she targeted a young adult audience in her Harry Potter series. There is a difference between clarity and simplicity of style, and the tone required for reading age. More on that anon. What I am getting at is that Rowling’s style, by any measure, has that virtue of simplicity and clarity.
How to do it? Hemingway led the crusade, nearly a century ago. Simplicity of vocabulary; an organisation of sentences that puts the verb up front, and minimal adjectives. Sentences need to be of varying lengths – and, if they are lengthy, then the organisation of the clauses still needs to progress from action to description.
In fiction, the way to make this happen is to avoid writing descriptions of a scene as if watching it in a movie. Instead, describe the scene as it was felt, experienced and responded to by the characters. Adjectives fall away. Characters are deepened – all in one easy move.
Style with no style. I like it. Do you?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: style with class, and style with control