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The Qualities of Style

by The Editor Company   


Time and again has the young author been advised to cultivate style; time and again has he been advised to "read So-and-so for style." Now, since style is simply the manner in which a writer expresses himself, there may be as many varieties of style as there are writers. Good style, however, no matter how individual, must possess certain fundamental qualities.

The foremost of these qualities is clearness of expression. The object of every one who writes is to convey his thoughts to another. It follows, then, that his language must be neither obscure nor ambiguous ; for, if his meaning is not clear and dis-tinct, or if it admits of more than one significance, he has failed to accomplish his purpose. Since it is hardly possible for one to make clear to another that of which one has but a limited knowledge, a thorough understanding of his subject is necessary to every writer.

The unity of the sentence is essential to clearness of expression. Many thoughts, or thoughts which have no close connection with each other, should not be crowded into one sentence, any more than several incidents happening in various places and at various times should be worked into one short story.

The misplacing of adverbs and clauses has caused many a writer to convey a meaning entirely foreign to that which he intended to convey. The man who advertised his lost umbrella as being the "property of a gentleman with a bone handle and a bent rib" very likely received a good offer from some circus or museum manager, while the merchant who wanted a boy to be "partly outside and partly behind the counter" must have found it difficult to secure just such a one as he needed. Pronouns, too, are often the cause of ambiguous sentences and need to be carefully watched.

The use of simple words and the choice of such words as express exactly one's idea tend greatly toward perspicuity; whereas bookish and foreign terms and obsolete words or words newly coined lead to ambiguity.

The second quality of good style is energy, or a vigor of expression designed to fix the attention of the reader and to arouse his interest. To convey one's idea with force, words are chosen, not for their beauty, but for their strength. The use, therefore, of specific rather than general terms is advisable. The fewer the words used, the more energetic will be the expression. The repetition of one's thought, the insertion of adjectives that are not necessary to the sense, and a roundabout way of stating things add nothing to the meaning, but detract, rather, from energetic expression.

To close a sentence with an insignificant word is to render that sentence feeble and unattractive; whereas the placing of the more important words in a position of emphasis—the subordinate clauses before the independent, and the strongest clause of the sentence, the strongest sentence of the paragraph, and the strongest paragraph last—is likely to attract and hold the attention of the reader.

To add beauty to style and to make the thought clearer and stronger, we may employ certain figures of speech which assert or assume the relation in which things stand to each other—a simile when we wish to assert a resemblance between two things otherwise unlike; a metaphor when, assuming the resemblance between two things, we bring over and apply to one of them the term which denotes the other; a synecdoche when the name of a part denotes the whole or a name of the whole denotes a part; a metonymy when the name of one thing long associated with another is taken to denote that other, etc. By intensifying the expression of emotion, rhetorical figures can be made to dignify or degrade that with which they are associated, and they are of great assistance in making clear and attractive thoughts which threaten to degenerate into the abstract or commonplace.

As opposed to uniformity, variety is an important quality of style, and to secure it one needs a large vocabulary and a working knowledge of grammar, composition and rhetoric. A judicious use of synonyms will prevent one word from appearing, too frequently, while long words alternating with short words and long sentences with short, oftentimes serve to make a pleasing break in a regularity which might otherwise become monotonous.

By changing the structure of a sentence, one may retain its meaning and, at the same time secure both variety and energy. Often—but not always—a simple declarative sentence may be changed into an interrogation or an exclamation with good effect. Then, too, the substitution of an active verb for a passive or a passive for an active verb, or of a participle or infinitive is a great help in securing variety of expression.

Clauses have no need to be permanently fixed in one position ; on the contrary, their transposition is frequently advantageous. By contracting clauses into phrases or words, complex sentences may be changed into simple sentences, while simple sentences are easily changed into complex sentences by the expansion of a word or phrase.

From this it may be seen that the author who can express his thoughts with clearness and energy, who employs figures of speech with wisdom and correctness, and who is careful to vary the monotony of his diction, will have attained what is called "style." Let him add to these qualities originality of expression and it is possible that he, too, may be held up to future literary aspirants as one whose style is worthy to be copied.


If you would be simple, choose only cardinal thoughts; leave to others the intricacies of the story. Take these thoughts and make them characteristic; make them the story; enlarge them; dwell upon them. Simplicity means success in story writing. If you can be natural, if you can be yourself, if you can tell things from the heart, as if you had no hearer, then you will please.

If you would be clear, be concise. Style appeals to the understanding, and unless your writing is perfectly clear, there can be no style. "Clearness," says Wendell, "is the distinguishing quality of a style that can not be misunderstood." It is imperative that your writing be clear, not only to yourself, but to the vast number of your readers who lack your intelligence and your familiarity with the subject. Be simple, and be concise, and you will be clear.

If you would make your composition correct in proportion, you must determine the relation of each part to each other part. Your introduction is only a small part of your story; it must not be given much space. Your hero is only one character; he must be described briefly, else the others will suffer. Each incident and bit of action is only a preparation for the climax; it must be passed over lightly lest it overshadow the finale. Remember that no character has a right in the story unless he is necessary to the action; that no detail that does not help it along is worth mentioning. The more a man pushes the action toward the climax, the more should you emphasize him; the more a detail serves in the end, the more liberally should you treat it.

If you would have unity, you must aim for the end, and drive constantly forward. You must not deviate; you must not swerve; you must not hesitate. Keep one central thought in mind; make every other thought subservient. The story has but one main theme, and every other one wins a place only because it furthers that one. Make only the one interest your reader; reserve the others for the technical necessities of keeping the story leaping pleasantly forward.