Wednesday, November 17, 2010

If Words Were Peas

The style of an author should be the image of his mind,
but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise. --Edward Gibbon

On a recent visit with my dad, I heard a story I'd never heard before. It seems that his grandfather lost the index finger of his left hand, down to the second knuckle, in an accident on a farm combine (harvesting machine). Not a particularly interesting story, even with the tidbit that this man, my great-grandfather, was left-handed. What did make the story interesting, at least to me, was that Grandpa always ate peas with a knife--using the hand with the missing the finger--and never dropped a pea.

After Dad finished telling his story, I asked, "Did Grandpa eat the peas with honey?" When he looked quizzical at what seemed to be a silly question, I said, "Well, didn't you ever hear the little ditty about the peas?" It was a poem I learned when I was little:
I eat my peas with honey,
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny
but it keeps them on the knife.

I figured with a story like that, maybe my great-grandfather could have written the poem. He sure had enough style for it.

Style. According to David Carroll, A Manual of Writer's Tricks, there are two areas in any written document that cause it to succeed or fail: content (what we say) and style (the way we say it). "Content is the information and message which a writer communicates. Style is the way in which this information is conveyed." Carroll explains: "From a more technical perspective, style is the way in which a writer uses language...a way of combining the standard elements of prose--tone, vocabulary, rhythm, grammar, syntax, emphasis, usage--into a unifed word tapestry which is amusing or lyrical or emotive or profound or fun." Style is "the writer's personality reaching out to the reader from the one-dimensional page."

"With maturity," Jorge Luis Borges says, "the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style."

And from Oakley Hall, The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, "A writer's style is more than his diction--word choice--or his rhetoric--his intention to persuade; it is his use of sentence rhythms, short, long, simple, complex...the use and originality of metaphors, the form of the differences of fact, style emerges from all the author's quirks and mannerisms, weaknesses and strengths."

Sounds to me like style, on one hand, is an intangible thing that's hard to get a handle on--personality, tone, rhythm, voice. But it's also a tangible thing, expressed from such things as mastering conventional rules, sitting down--regularly and consistently--at the writer's table, choosing from a good diet of ideas. Maybe it's not so much different than eating peas with a knife, trying to get slippery words on paper and do so with an individual flourish.

Hmmm, but just how to make it all taste good...?

How do you define style?

(Note: for discussions on the origins of the peas-and-honey poem, see Poetry Foundation, Food Reference, or


  1. I think you defined style pretty well here. I don't know how else I would, that's for sure.

  2. You know, I wonder if style and voice is the same thing. Voice of the writer not his character. Hmmmm, you've given me something to think about. Excellent post.

  3. I love how you explained this--I think only once before have I seen voice explained so clearly. Terrific!

  4. Wonderful post. As for how to define "style", I sort of a gree with Catherine A. Winn, that style and voice are the same thing. Also "tone". The tone you set. It's that combination, I think. But still..., so hard to really define.

  5. Thanks, Melissa, Fire in the Hole, Shannon, and Terri for dropping by with comments. And Catherine, you've flipped the question back to me. Are style and voice the same? Is it semantics, or is there a distinct difference? Now I've got something to think abou, too. Thanks for making me think, too. Stay tuned...:-)

  6. Elizabeth--you've thrown me another challenge! How is tone different/similar to style and voice? Yet another area to explore. What fun. Thanks :-)