Style: getting over the fear of the blank page

Style is the principal technique writers use to overcome the dread of the blank page, or the empty screen with the blinking cursor: that austere white landscape able to paralyse us with its infinity of choices.

When we write we use words, just as we do when we speak. But speaking seems to come to us so much more naturally. When we’re talking we’re aware of who we’re talking to. Sometimes, of course, as in an interview, or giving a presentation, we can be all too acutely aware of our audience. But when we can see how our audience is responding to what we are saying, we can modify and tailor what we say appropriately.

But when we write we send a message in a bottle to invisible, inscrutable recipients. As the linguist Stephen Pinker puts it, ‘we cast our bread upon the waters’, putting our words at the mercy of an audience that exists only in our imagination.

Conscious and unconscious style

Good writers use style to take the mystery out of writing. Just as a musician copes with the infinite world of sound by working with a particular combination of key, scale and rhythm, or a designer with a defined colour palette, typeface and set of images, the writer establishes parameters to guide their choice of words and mode of expression.

Before writing a word the writer creates a context for their text by asking a set of simple questions. What is it that I want to say? Who is my intended reader? What is my purpose for writing? Am I seeking to persuade the reader of something, or simply to present it to them? Am I trying to elicit an emotional response? What motivation might my reader have? Do they wish to be challenged? Or just to be told something? Perhaps they are looking to me to transport them to some imaginary place through the telling of a story?

The writer’s attitude towards these fundamental questions will determine the style in which they write. Different styles flow from the various answers that can be given to these questions, just as different musical genres flow from varied arrangements of instruments and musical modes.

In fact it is impossible to write without using some style or other, even if the writer is unaware they are using a style at all. Style is inherent in all writing, not something layered on top of some pure form of expression preceding style. Style can go unnoticed, like the typeface in which text is printed, but it is always there.

If we’re not aware of style we imprison ourselves within whatever style it is that we use by default. Once we recognise and embrace the concept of style we open ourselves to the possibilities style affords for employing language in different ways for different purposes.

It is important to note that style is not the same as grammar. Grammar is a set of shared conventions for using language. Many books presented as ‘style guides’ are rather more concerned with these conventions than style, offering advice on matters on details of usage such as whether infinitives can be split, whether we should say ‘who’ or ‘whom’, or ‘you and I’ or ‘you and me’. (As I’ll write in more detail in a later post much of this advice is in fact rather unhelpful. There is no one ‘correct’ way to use a language. Language evolves as conventions change.)

Defining styles

The importance of style in the sense I’m using it here has been recognised by writers for millennia. The surviving commentaries that have come down to us from classical antiquity identify and explore many of the styles we’re familiar with today. Writers such as Aristotle, Cicero, Demetrius and Longinus explored the characteristics of the different styles suitable for addressing different audiences. Cicero analysed and advocated oratorical techniques for addressing audiences. Aristotle suggested that writing used for everyday purposes should be ‘clear and not commonplace’. And Longinus examined the ‘sublime’ style imaginative writers use ‘not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves.’

The range of styles writers have evolved has slowly expanded over the centuries. I’ll discuss many of them in this blog, but I will focus primarily on two styles particularly suitable for everyday writing: practical and classic styles.

Practical style is a workmanlike mode of writing used for straightforward transmission of information from writer to reader. Here the relationship between writer and reader resembles that of teacher and student: the writer presents information designed to help the reader undertake a specified task. The practical stylist is adept at writing manuals, emails, reports and other everyday, useful materials.

Classic style is also concerned with clarity, but does not share pragmatic style’s overriding concern with the transmission of knowledge. This style has a disinterested, unhurried, calm, conversational character. The writer simply seeks to present something to the reader, for no other reason than that they believe it will be of interest to them. The classic writer does not concern themselves with seeking to capture the reader’s attention: it is assumed from the outset that the reader is interested in what the writer has to say. The imagined scene is of two friends, one of whom, the writer, has simply noticed something of which the reader is not yet aware, something they believe will be of interest to the reader, and, that being so, that they are therefore motivated to present to the reader as clearly as they can.

Although the classic writer’s explicit objective is not to persuade the reader, this style, if skilfully employed, can in fact be an extremely effective means of persuasion. As such it is a useful style for a wide range of business communications, such as website content, marketing materials, project proposal documents, news features and blog posts.

Because classic style is so useful, and comparatively little known, it will feature prominently in this blog. In describing the style I’ll use Francis Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s definitive work on classic style, Clear and Simple as the Truth, as my primary source. The style is also described nicely in Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style.

So, let’s start by taking a longer look at what classic style is, by first introducing it and then moving on to discussions of each element of the style.