Sunday, 6 December 2015

STYLE MATTERS by Gill Stewart

Zombie, Undead, Monster, Living Dead, Mutant
Zombie nouns?
Are you a grammar snob? Do you know and obey all the rules (avoid the passive tense, avoid adjectives and adverbs …) Or do you believe that as long as a sentence is understandable that’s fine?

Are you a grammar snob? Do you know and obey all the rules (avoid the passive tense, avoid adjectives and adverbs …) Or do you believe that as long as a sentence is understandable that’s fine?

I lie somewhere in between the two extremes, and I would never have claimed to put particular value on style in writing. But (for a little light reading, while away on holiday) I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s  ‘The Sense Of Style’. And because he writes so clearly and with such style I now see how important good style is.

I’ve always said I’m not a fan of literary fiction. I don’t like convoluted phrasing or books that are about ideas and not people. Now I’m starting to think that it is only bad literary fiction that I don’t like. Just as I’m not a fan of bad light fiction. In fact, I don’t like poor quality writing in any genre. Now that Pinker has explained it to me, I see that I am, in fact, a great fan of good writing, what he calls ‘classic style’. Classic style is about communicating clearly and concisely between writer and reader. ‘Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between the writer and the reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.’ ‘Good style isn’t about rules, it’s about empathy, coherence and adding beauty to the world.’ Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Pinker’s book isn’t only informative, it’s amusing too. I love the idea of ‘zombie nouns’ – nouns made out of verbs and which are almost always less clear and take longer to understand than the original verb. Compare the two phrases: ‘Comprehension is a necessary part of analysis’ and ‘It’s important you understand before you analyse’. The first one has the zombie nouns.

A key piece of advice from Pinker is that nobody writes brilliantly first time. The key to good style is good editing. It takes work, but with effort we can all write better. So that’s going to be one of my New Year’s Resolutions – to edit more and write more clearly. How about you?

And yes, I am really worried I have made lots of style errors in this blog. Please feel free to point them out!


  1. Oh,Gill, I so agree with this post - but now you have me in a complete panic. What on on Earth is good style? Is it the same for me as it is for you? What if a writer's 'voice' is stylistically ugly? Help!

    The easy thing about grammar is that the rules are pretty easy to identify and apply, even if they sound wrong.

    Much food for thought here. Thanks. I know I ought to buy the book but I'm not sure if I dare!

  2. The book is actually a fun read (except for one techy chapter) so I'd definitely recommend it. One of the things I am trying to take from it is to write clearly - that seems to be something simple to aim for. And your writing voice definitely isn't ugly, so you're fine!

  3. I don't read many blogs these days but I had to read this - and now i wish I hadn't! Like Jennifer I shall be wondering about all the things I do, or should not do. I have to agree though, some writing seems to be complex simply to cram in as many words as possible, or twist things around. I shall try to take more care in future.

    1. You don't need to take care Gwen, your writing is effortlessly lovely (well, it seems effortless). Thanks for commenting x

  4. I love this quote from Derek Neale "Anyone can write, only writers can edit". So true. I have enjoyed your post and much of Stephen Pinker. I believe clarity and the classic style is always worth aiming for. My pet hate is that verb that people use so often as a noun, these days: Invite. "Thanks for the invite," they say, when they mean invitation. Grrr. I'm not a stickler for correct grammar but a good working knowledge of it aids clarity and I'm all for breaking the rules when clarity or the style demands it. Sadly, not enough people seem to care much about grammar, style or striving for clarity these days.

  5. Thanks for popping by Lesley, and sharing that quote! I agree that rules are useful but it is clarity that really matters. I plan to adopt what my sister say's is the South African attitude to rules: 'We see them more as rough guidelines'!