Writing in Style

Andrea Lunsford


What's in a style? Is it the low, middle, or high style of the Ad Herennium? The plain style Thomas Sprat and the Royal Society called for with its "purity and shortness," and its rejection of "all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings" style is thought to be heir to? The "wild style" of Margaret Cavendish, who talked trash to the Royal Society and insisted on elaboration, on copia, on excesses of style as ways to resist the "order and purity" of the Society with her own view of cosmology, one whose keys are vitality, irreducibility, plurality, and relationship (Margaret was definitely ahead of her time!)? The clear, direct, objective, impersonal, "manly" style of many periods in western history, including the later nineteenth century (think Strunk and White here?); the "CBS style" Dick Lanham identifies and critiques? The "alternate" style dubbed by Winston Weathers "Grammar B"? The so-called "non-standard" styles that schools have always been about controlling and regulating?

I could go on, of course, since I've barely begun the list of labels that have been attached to the dominant styles in the history of western literacy. I have used this brief list as a shorthand way of arguing that, as the material substance of discourse, style has great power, making some messages acceptable and persuasive and leaving others disregarded or literally unheard. In the context of material practices, style marks a borderland where conflicting forces contend-though this site all too often goes unremarked. In the face of such persistent erasure, those who resist or reject the sanctioned style continue to be viewed as deviating from stylistic norms or as deficient in their use, not as crafting new ones.

Several scholars have noted the blind spot toward style characteristic of much feminist discourse, and I see a similar site of erasure in composition studies, one that has been questioned persistently in the U.S. by Geneva Smitherman, Duku Anokye, and a few others. In her work, Duku insists that teachers of composition and rhetoric must "read the cultural text" in addition to the linguistic one, and while we know, at some level, that Duku is right, the field as a whole has seemed to me reluctant to act on this knowledge. That reluctance, in my view, is materially coded at the scene of style. Indeed, in spite of a mountain of evidence to suggest the richness of stylistic possibilities open to undergraduate writers today, studies (and especially those sponsored by U.S. governmental agencies) continue to focus on and debate the stylistic inadequacies of student writers-all the while failing even to remark on their OWN stylistic hegemonies. Textbook and pedagogical materials, too, continue to represent style as unproblematic, as an uninterested matter of acquisition of a norm rather than as the embodiment of (multiple) cultures. Surely I don't need to note that textbooks are almost universally silent on the subject of their own styles, as are most of our course descriptions and syllabi.

Most intriguing to me, not to say downright odd, is the fact that debates over the place of "the personal" in student and academic writing generally have taken place without grounding them in the soil of style (in the tedious Elbow-Bartholomae debate, for instance, no one I know has looked closely at the stylistic choices each arguer made). So too the debates over those who are trying to resist stylistic conventions of academic prose. And the most recent uproar in the U.S. over Ebonics and its extensive fallout is but one more example of the ways in which we continue to discipline and punish those who enact such resistance-while turning a blind eye to the ideologies embedded in our own styles. (Mention Michel Tremblay's early work in an "alternate" Quebecois vernacular, if time)

What I am arguing, albeit simple mindedly, is that style-so powerful in allowing, or disallowing resistant voices to be heard-needs much more detailed attention. Nowhere is such attention more called for than in the area of evolving electronic discourses. It is by now a commonplace to note that these evolving discourses have the potential to call into question what counts as "good," "effective," "pleasing" style. Yet the debates raging in cyberspace (does anything that might be called *private* still exist? How will knowledge be circulated and owned? Is there any place for the non-commercial on the Net/web?) Are being carried out with very little attention to their own rhetoricity, their own styles. Yet the very architecture of the Net has style, as Laura Gurak, Cindy Selfe, and Sarah Sloane have all demonstrated. In fact, this elusive, largely invisible style may well be of greater importance for us and our students than the online stylistic conventions currently emerging, more important for the ways we and our students can, and cannot, think and write online, not to mention how we might resist such preordained stylistic choices. Without out deep attention to and understanding of the architectural style of the Net and Web and, moreover, to affecting that architecture, we can only fit ourselves and our messages into styles crafted by the dotcom guys of Silicon Valley.

I've said that matters of style are intricately intertwined with ideology, epistemology, and pedagogy, and that our field has taken style largely for granted, failing to examine style as style. Indeed the overwhelming focus of work in composition during the last 30- years has been on invention. For these reasons, I hope to focus on style and stylistic resistance, online and off, in a longitudinal study I hope to carry out with student writers at Stanford. As I turn to this examination of style in undergraduate student writing, I expect to confront four challenges that confront those trying to rethink what it can mean to "write in style."

I have already alluded to the first of these challenges, the one presented by digital literacies and online discourses. What might the Margaret Cavendish of today define as "wild style," te corollary of the excesses and exuberances of Cavendish's lush and dangerous prose? While a few scholars (and only a few have the technical and rhetorical knowledge to do so) are examining what I"ll call the "deep" style of the Net's architecture, the more easily observable stylistic features and resistances to them haven't been studied much either, especially in the context of student writing. What, for instance, characterizes a stylistically elegant student hypertext? More to the point, who gets to say what these features are, and how will they acquire the cultural capital necessary to do so. And who will then resist them-and why?

One who is trying to define such features is Mark Bernstien, of Eastgate Systems. So far, he has described a number of stylistic moves, which he sometimes calls patterns: cycles (he describes three variations); web rings ( a kind of grand cycle); counterpoint; mirrorworld; tangle; sieve; montage; split/join; missing link; and navigational feint. (Note the metaphors Bernstein draws on in labeling these stylistic strategies) Will these features "stick"? If they do so, of course, they will begin to constrain webwriters, since that's part of what stylistic naming always does-begin a regulating function. In my view, we should not let Mark Bernstein or anyone else do all this naming for us. We and our students should be carying out close readings and critiques of hypertext, looking for what we can learn about stylistic move and turns, and crafting our own stylistic options.

A second challenge lies in the need to observe, understand, and appreciate the full range of styles our students control, some of which, I venture to say, are highly resistant to traditional conventions. In the U.S., Geneva, Arnetha Ball, Kermit Campbell, Helen Fox (I am sure you can identify others) are leading the way. But we need much more, sustained work describing oral/written/visual mixed texts. We know pitifully little about the cultural styles our students inhabit-and white teachers especially have got to undertake this learning. In addition, we need careful quantitative studies that will identify changes in sentence patterns, organizational strategies, word choice, and so on. (Mention Safire column on the rise of the dash) As important as school writing is the extensive writing our students no engage in outside of school. This writing provides a basis for studies we could carry out in collaboration with our students. (If time, aside on my study of Wired style vs. New Yorker.)

A third challenge we face-and as an author of several textbooks, I take this one particularly to heart-is to create teaching materials and pedagogies adequate to a range of styles as well as resisting styles. To do so, we must question a number of assumptions inscribed in most texts and composition programs:

Thinking through these assumptions, laden with ideology as they are, presents perhaps our greatest challenge to helping our students "write in style" without being dominated by prevailing stylistic conventions. In this regard, our students offer a tremendous resource. And thus the final challenge I see is how best to engage students in intense research on style in varying settings and across a full range of registers, dialects, and cultures-and to enlist their help in creating the new vocabularies we need for 21st century styles.

When I told my good friend and colleague Beverly Moss that I was going to be talking about style today, she gave me one of her famous Beverly looks and said, "Style. Well, everybody's got one." Indeed. And perhaps that fact marks a good point of entry for us and our undergraduate students in thinking more critically and creatively and resistantly about style. If we begin by asking not what's in a name but what's in a style (or styles), we can begin to uncover the ideological, epistemological, economic, political, social, and pedagogical implications of both the question and its answers. Only then will we be in a position to craft a theory-much less a practice or a pedagogy-to account for writing in style.


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