Understanding what to do can help someone to adopt a habit and memorize a pattern of actions. The "why" goes a step further and gives the action a means by which to grow and develop over time into, possibly, something more productive.
Why do writers follow the advice that they follow?
The word of advice that any rhetor will hear time and time again is to read, and they'll understand it as fact, but what happens when reading becomes more than an implied rule?
Steven Pinker discusses this idea, stating that writers will get most of their knowledge on style through other writers, who will then reflect in their own way on why the prose works. I think that Pinker does leave out that the same can be said for ineffective prose. A rhetor might still be learning their style, see something they feel is ineffective, and might reverse engineer the piece just as well as they'd reverse engineer something good in order to practice a particular skill.
In no way does this diminish his argument, however. In the first chapter of The Sense of Style, Pinker goes through four excerpts from texts that he admires, following them with reflections on what makes that writing "good" writing.
Before I turn to some of Pinker's reflections, I will share an excerpt from a book whose language I admire and provide a reflection of my own, specifically on the writing, just to briefly demonstrate.
"When they'd first arrived at the wounded oak, Taryn felt she was sleepwalking into an exceptional state of being--as if the leaves of the trees were the days and the days between Beatrice and her, in the same place, almost the last place Beatrice ever was. Taryn had felt she was taking the Muleskinner not so much to the crime scene as to Beatrice herself. 'Beatrice, this is your avenger.' But the book-burdened young man had blundered along and ruined Taryn's great moment" (Knox, 2019).
The alliteration in this passage starts with Beatrice, Taryn's late sister. Instead of just replacing Beatrice's name in the rest of the paragraph with "her sister," something that many style guides would claim to be more effective and correct, her name is used again and again. This helps this passage to achieve a beautiful tension.
To better explain, Taryn "sleepwalking into an exceptional state of being" sounds like a spiritual experience, something that might feel magical. That magical moment seems to end at, "almost the last place Beatrice ever was." Then, the third and fourth mention of Beatrice's name is only separated by one word. The tension heightens and builds to, "But the book-burdened...blundered."
Knox creates a complete emotional atmosphere simply through her clever use of the letter, "b".
I look for and admire writers who can take very simple strategies and create complex living experiences. So, my analysis up to this point shows something about what I value and something about what makes good writing to me.
One of the passages that Pinker analyzes is from Betraying Spinoza, a text that was authored by his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein's writing, as Pinker explains, often evokes the themes of identity, truth, mortality, and intention. This is in both her fiction and nonfiction, and as such was not an exception in Betraying Spinoza. Here is the beginning of the excerpt used:
"What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be--until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically" (Goldstein, 2006 as cited by Pinker, 2014).
Rightly, Pinker centers in on Goldstein's use of the word, "unproblematically." He states, "Here we have an adverb, unproblematically, modifying the verb continue, an ellipsis for continue to be. Ordinarily, to be is not the kind of verb that can be modified by an adverb...The unexpected adverb put an array of metaphysical, theological, and personal questions on the table before us" (Pinker, 2014).
What I find interesting about this analysis is that he does something here that he later states that Goldstein does in a later description of a photograph. While he's right about the unexpected adverb, what he points out is that the unexpected nature of the word both evokes and serves as an allegory for the question itself. More simply, the word describes the question, but he never says this directly.
When Pinker is analyzing the photograph that Goldstein later describes of herself eating a watermelon as a child, he states that she never uses any direct adjectives to explain what's happening. However, through her description, we can envision the endearing situation.
Pinker appears to be practicing this skill in his description of the word, "unproblematically", which introduces an interesting opportunity and exercise for those who are interested in learning and adopting the skills they are reflecting on as they are reading. It's unclear as to whether this was intentional, but it is helpful.
The exercise is to read and locate a passage from text whose language stands out and to reflect on what makes that piece of writing stand out. Even if the strategy can't be named, maybe it's the author's use of a specific word or pattern of words. Maybe it's the way that an author evokes emotion at a specific point.
Then, the task is to express that reflection to practice the same strategies. The practice doesn't have to look the same or carry the same meaning as your sample, it's not meant to do that. The reflection takes a strategy used in the sample and uses it for the purpose of self-expression.
This is why writers are always advised to read. A writer should know what they value [and do not value] in different types of writing. It's not a matter of copying what another writer has modeled. A writer should read to understand the tools at their disposal and learn how they are used, reflect on those tools, and possibly develop their own.
Thank you so much to everyone who's been giving feedback and suggestions to Purposeful Prose thus far. Next week, I will be sharing the third and final part of my interview with Gabriël Oosthuizen, a wonderful friend and colleague. If you like my interviews and would like to see more, there are many wonderful people who I would love to give a spotlight to.
My articles on The Sense of Style will look different as this text is more easily accessible and a little more modern and I would like to encourage any reader to buy a copy.
The excerpt in the beginning of this article is from The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox, a beautifully written fantastical mystery. If anyone is interested in a study in perspectives, I would highly recommend this as a subject.
If you've enjoyed, you're welcome to become a member of Purposeful Prose. Members can "like", comment on and engage with posts, and participate in the forum. If you have any suggestions as to what I should research and write about for future articles, you can contact me through any means available on this site.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Knox, E. (2019). The Absolute Book: A Novel. Viking.
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Viking.