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Improve Your Style

by The Editor Company   


To achieve your object, read and write constantly and carefully.

Your reading should be deliberate; the exact meaning and weight of words and phrases should be sought after, especially when at all unusual or apparently strained.

Particularly forceful, beautiful, or dainty passages—prose or poetry—should be read, re-read, and pondered over until their charm and strength have been mentally digested. Make your mind a storehouse of such treasures, and your own style will, of necessity, improve. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump."

Read "Fors Clavigera," in fact, all of Ruskin's works, except those which are mostly or entirely technical. Study with particular thoroughness the passage in "Sesame and Lilies" which treats of the power and value of words, and of the necessity of weighing with due care what one reads.

Read Addison for clearness; Thackeray for sarcasm; of recent authors, J. H. Shorthouse for elegance, and Rudyard Kipling for originality and strength; Hood and Holmes for sprightly versifying; Augustus Birrell for light, crisp, sparkling prose; Tennyson and Watson, Sill and Lanier, for elegant, forceful, alliterative English.

The study of proverbs is helpful. A proverb is multum in parvo.

Write regularly, and whenever it is possible, express yourself in pure, terse, nervous Saxon. Do not sacrifice sense to effect; but on the other hand, bear in mind that a gem is all the more valuable and attractive for being well set. Do not be afraid to use a well-known foreign expression in case you have to choose between that and clumsy English. Never use a long word where a short one will serve your purpose just as well. Ceteris paribus, brevity is strength.

Write your thoughts and ideas, one at a time, and then read, re-read, and amend wherever possible. Do not be satisfied with anything short of perfection. Before you let anything leave your hand have the confidence that it is the best you can write. Should it be necessary, alter it so much that finally not more than one word of the original draught remains, like the word "whereas" of a certain English law.

Read aloud what you write. Much that looks correct sounds faulty. Have your last copy typewritten, for in type small errors, especially those of punctuation, are glaring. Remember that the best writers are their own most merciless critics.

Write short critiques of the books you have read, and then submit what you have written to some one in whose critical judgment you have confidence.

Even in ordinary correspondence write the best letter you can write. Always try to express yourself exactly, not approximately ; and always find out for yourself if you have succeeded. "Practice makes perfect."

To gain accuracy and succinctness, practice docketing. Write a synopsis of a paragraph or of a chapter. Give the contents and nothing more. Then revise and correct. Cut out every superfluous word and amend until no further betterment is possible. A study of Charlotte Bronte's style would be useful. Macaulay would often recast an entire chapter because one paragraph did not please him; Tennyson would spend a morning polishing a single line.

Do not imitate the style of any writer, but assimilate what is good. In writing, as in everything else, "Best be yourself— imperial, firm, and true."

In your own writing, tolerate no inaccurate, weak, or doubtful word or phrase. Translation into English will give practice in the weighing of words.

As "Rome was not built in a day," approximate perfection in writing can only be attained by prolonged and conscientious endeavor. As Pope wrote:

"True ease in writing comes by art, not chance, As they move easiest who have learned to dance."


The writer who expects to dabble successfully in the realms of fiction without understanding clearly the use of figurative language is bound to fail. Figures of speech are a necessary part of literature; a thorough knowledge of them is one of the requisites of the successful author. Most of us studied them a little shamefacedly in school, and some of us reviewed them in later years. Because the subject was not presented clearly and invitingly, however, we forced ourselves to the task. To our more fortunate fellow-writers we present this clean-cut and entertaining article.

Figurative language implies a departure, more or less radical, from the simple or ordinary mode of expression; a clothing of ideas in words which not only convey the true meaning, but, through a comparison or some other means of exciting or stimulating the imagination of the reader, convey it in such a manner as to make a lively and forcible impression on the mind.

For instance, if we say "Alexander was shrewd in the council, brave in the field," we express the desired meaning in the simplest manner; but changing the expression to "Alexander was a fox in the council, a lion in the field," we clothe the same sentiment in figurative language. Instead of cunning and courage we substitute the names of the animals possessing these qualities in the highest degree, thus presenting livelier images to the mind. Hence, we have a plain and simple proposition in the sentence, "It is impossible, even by the most careful search, fully to ascertain the divine nature." But when we say, "Canst thou, by searching, find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection? It is high as heaven, what canst thou do? deeper than hell, what canst thou know?" we unite with the same proposition questions expressive of admiration, and thus render it more forcible.

Such figures as Mimesis, Archaism and the principal eight etymological figures: Aphaeresis, Prosthesis, Syncope, Apocope, Paragoge, Diaeresis, Synaeresis, and Tmesis, are, although the writer should be able to recognize and, if need be, use them, not so important as the more familiar figures of rhetoric.

As a language progresses in refinement, precision is much more regarded, and there is a general tendency to give every object a distinct name of its own. Nevertheless, figurative words continue to occupy a considerable place in modern writings, always, however, very skillfully blending in with the other expressions. We find, on examination, that, while there are some words and phrases which, by reason of frequent use, have come to be regarded as purely literal expressions, such as a clear head, a hard heart, and the like; there are many others which, in a greater or less degree, retain their figurative character, and impart to style the peculiar effect described above. As examples we may cite such expressions as the following: "to enter upon a subject," "to follow out an argument," "to stir up strife," to move the feelings," etc. In the usage of such phrases, the correct, careful writer will always carry out the figure; that is, will regard the allusion on which it is based, and introduce in the same connection nothing inconsistent therewith. One may, for example, "be sheltered under the patronage of a great man," but it would be entirely incorrect to say, "sheltered under the mask of equivocation," for a mask does not shelter, but conceals.

Skilled writers of to-day are becoming more and more familiar with the many and varied advantages accruing from the proper and careful use of figures. The most important advantages are these:

I.  They enrich a language and literature by increasing its facilities of expression. By their means, words and phrases are multiplied, so that all kinds of ideas, the minutest differences, and the finest shades of thought can be accurately and distinctly expressed.

II.  They dignify style. Words and phrases to which the ear is accustomed are often too colloquial and familiar to be employed in connection with elevated subjects. When treating of the latter it is plain that we should be greatly at a loss were it not for figures. Skillfully used, they have the same effect upon language that is produced by the rich and splendid dress of a person of rank, that is, by imparting a general air of magnificence, they exact admiration and respect. Assistance of this kind is often necessary in prose, in poetry it is indispensable.

Among the principal common styles resulting from the varied use of figurative language may be mentioned:

(a)   The Plain Style. This style is that in the employment of which the writer does not endeavor in the least to please the reader with ornament, but carefully avoids disgusting us with harshness. In addition to perspicuity, which is the only aim of the dry writer, he studies precision, purity and propriety. Such figures that are naturally suggested and tend to elucidate his meaning, he does not reject; while those which merely embellish, he avoids as beneath his notice. Locke and Swift belong to this class of writers.

(b)   The Neat Style. Here ornaments are employed, but not those of the most elevated or sparkling kind; they are appropriate and correct, rather than bold and glowing. The writer seeks to obtain beauty of construction, rather by a ju-

dicious selection and arrangement of words than by striking efforts of the imagination. The average sentences are of moderate length, and carefully freed from superfluities. This style is very much used by modern writers, and is adapted to every species of writing; to letters, essays, sermons, law papers, stories, and even the most abstract technical treatises.

(c)   The Elegant Style. This style possesses all the beauty ornament can add, without any of the drawbacks arising from its improper or excessive use. It may be regarded as the perfection of style. "An elegant writer," says Blair, "is one who pleases the fancy and the ear, while he informs the understanding; and who gives us his ideas excellently clothed with all the beauty of expression, but not overcharged with any of its misplaced finery." Such a writer, preeminently, is Addison, probably best shown in his extremely delightful "Sir Roger de Coverley Papers." Pope, Temple and Bolingbroke are, though in a less degree than Addison, also in this class of writers.

(d)   The Florid Style is that one in which ornament is everywhere paramount. The term is used with a two-fold signification: for the ornaments may spring from a luxuriant imagination and have a solid basis of thought upon which to rest; or, as is too often the case, the luxuriance may be in words alone and not in fancy; the brilliancy may be merely superficial, a glittering tinsel, which, however much it may please the shallow minded, can not fail to disgust the judicious. As first defined, this style has been employed with marked success by several distinguished writers, whose productions consist almost entirely of the bold and brilliant; but it is only writers of transcendent genius who can thus indulge in continued ornament with any hope of success.

Inferior minds inevitably fall into the second kind of floridity alluded to above, than which nothing is more contemptible. The young, inexperienced writer's vividness of imagination often betrays him into this fault; it is one, however, which time and care generally correct, and which is, therefore, to be preferred to the opposite extreme. Was it not Quintilian who said: "Luxuriance can easily be cured, but for barrenness there is no remedy."

III. Figures of speech bring before the.mind two objects simultaneously, yet without confusion. We see one thing in another, and this is always a source of pleasure. In nothing does the mind more gladly employ itself than in detecting and tracing resemblances.

IV. Again, as already seen, figures frequently convey the meaning more clearly and forcibly than plain language. This is particularly true in the case of abstract conceptions, which, in a greater or less degree, they represent as sensible objects, surrounding them with such circumstances as enable the mind fully to comprehend them. A well-chosen figure, indeed, not infrequently, with the force of an argument carries conviction to the mind of the hearer; as in the following illustration from Young: "When we dip too deep in pleasure, we always stir a sediment that renders it impure and noxious."

And now, since, as previously stated, "for barrenness there is no remedy," let us, in conclusion, consider the best means of correcting an over-florid style. If the reader is a writer, he knows whether or not his style is over-florid, and whether or not the following would help him:

Careful revision is positively necessary. Words which do not aid the writer must be stricken out, and even whole sentences must be sometimes reconstructed. On the ornamental parts in particular, the file must be freely used. Those figures which are not in all respects chaste and appropriate to the subject, must be unceremoniously removed. To write frequently on familiar themes will be found another effective means of correcting excessive floridity. In such exercise, the inappro-priateness of too much ornament will be obvious to the writer himself, and the effort made to repress it will have the desired beneficial effect on all his future productions.