On Style In Writing


Reading Michael Dirda’s Classics For Pleasure may have been a mistake. It led to me add several titles to my already uncompletable life-time reading list (The 300 “Self-Doctorate” reading list makes-up only a small percentage of the life-time list).

I did like this one assertion that Dirda makes… “The only truly important narrative gift is the ability to keep the reader enthralled.”

I mean, that is the point, isn’t it? for a writer?  I mean, it’s not my main point, but I’m weird; I’m composing essays in order to better process the stuff I’m reading during these three years.  But for most writers, whether you are slant-rhyming or writing a 600-page fantasy novel– stylist pyrotechnics are worthless if they don’t entice, engage, or give pleasure to the reader.

Under Dirda’s practical view, “good” style cannot be something timeless; it would need change over time according to the tastes of the intended audience. A readership in the past may have once been enthralled by typographical novelties such as poems shaped in the form of a Christmas trees, but today’s readers may fail to respond to such graphical eccentricities. The same might go for poetry which aims to shock sensibilities, or for flowery, adverb-laden prose in which a sentence can run-on for over a page.

So how does a person who wants to write for the ages pick the best style when there are no absolutes, only changing subjective appraisals?  It seems to me rather a game of chance whether one’s work will be remembered five hundred, one hundred, or even twenty years from now. I guess the best thing, in the end, is to know who you’re writing for (a particular audience? yourself? a money-paying publisher?) and then just do the best you can, every work, every sentence.


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