In his essay “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy,” Winston Weathers mentions a “definite exercise system” whereby students learn to mimic stylistic writing models. This exercise recalls writing emulation activities that were popular in late 19th and early 20th century America. Recently, I have conducted some “emulation exercises” in my classes.
I had students compare Natalia Ginsburg’s “He and I” with the draft of an essay by Michael Blumenthal (whom I met during law school and who was kind enough to show my students what a professional writer’s “rough” draft looks like). Then the students undertook an exercise. They picked out their favorite sentences, which were mostly the sentences they thought were the most “stylistic.” The students wrote these sentences on the board. They erased all the words in the sentence so that only punctuation remained. Finally, they inserted their own words where the authors’ had been, maintaining the integrity of the sentence structure (i.e., the punctuation) but conveying an entirely different message. After doing this with several sentences, my students, some of them at least, began to see how professional authors use colons, dashes, and semi-colons. They began to see how professional authors use different styles. I believe they also learned ways to experiment with syntax.
To employ Weathers’s wording, I hope the students learned “(1) how to recognize stylistic material, (2) how to transfer this stylistic material and make it a part of compositional technique, (3) how to combine stylistic materials into particular stylistic modes, and (4) how to adapt particular stylistic modes to particular rhetorical situations” (369). I’m not sure my exercise provided much guidance as to # 4, but it seemed to teach the lessons of # 1, # 2, and # 3.
Since I gave this exercise, I’ve noticed one sign of improvement among my students: they have become better readers. They know, for instance, what style they like. Some students preferred Ginsburg’s style to Blumenthal’s, and vice versa. At first, they weren’t sure why, but after the exercise, they slowly gained a sense of why they liked one more than the other. One student claimed that Ginsburg’s piece was a faster read because it had fewer commas. This student preferred short, matter-of-fact sentences with a quick rhythm. I don’t think he realized this preference until he did the exercise. I later gave this student a Hemingway passage and asked, “Is this the style you like?” The student said that, indeed, this was the style he liked, and also that he was afraid that my reading assignments were encouraging students to write sentences in a New Yorker style: long, meandering, and comma-heavy. This last comment was interesting on many levels.
Writing instructors ought to teach or at least encourage style.
Style is important; style can be cultivated.
For further reading, see Winston Weathers, “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy,” in The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook, Fourth Edition. Edited by Edward P. J. Corbett, Nancy Meyers and Gary Tate (Oxford University Press, 1999).