English and creative writing programs are failing to provide students with the tools necessary to develop a mature understanding of prose style. Theoretically, one would learn style by taking classes in writing, literature, and linguistics—but rarely do these classes teach prose style in a way that directly benefits students who want to be writers and editors.
Richard Lanham, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, is an expert in rhetoric, style, and revision. In many of his works, but especially his books Analyzing Prose and Style: An Anti-Text Book, Lanham criticizes this mainstream paradigm of writing instruction. He points out the contradiction between the advice provided by the Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity (CBS) theory of prose which “seems to contradict all that we say is good in literature and runs an enormous rift between ‘literature’ on one hand and ‘ordinary prose’ on the other.” By celebrating the CBS style of prose, teachers make direct instruction of style more difficult. The goal of the CBS style is transparency. By cutting language down to a bare minimum, there is little to point to regarding style—thus nothing to say. As a result, students only learn about substance—completely ignoring how poetic elements make literature. This creates a significant pedagogical gap.
Stylistics and generative grammar/rhetoric fill this pedagogical gap and should be an integral part of every writing program. Stylistics, popular in the United Kingdom, explore the intersection of language and literature. Through applying linguistics to literature, stylistics offers tremendous insight in how innovation and creativity function in creative works.
What I find beneficial about these texts is that they allow individuals to apply a rigorous approach to discussing complex issues in creative writing such as grammar, style, and point of view. It allows for a better explanation of the relationship between substance and style. Creative writing programs have placed great emphasis on the workshop method for instruction. And this depends on peer revision. If peers lack the technical know-how, conversations become shallow and repetitive. Creative writing students don’t need to have a PhD in linguistics to provide quality feedback, but the inclusion of appropriate technical language—like that included in stylistics—will benefit all involved.
Leech and Short’s Style in Fiction
Fowler’s Linguistic Criticism
Donnelly’s Linguistics for Writers
Chatman’s Story and Discourse and Literary Style: A Symposium
Babb’s (ed.) Essays in Stylistic Analysis
Freeman’s Linguistics and Literary Style
Pinker’s The Sense of Style
Generative Grammar and Rhetoric
Francis and Bonniejean Christensen’s A New Rhetoric
Brooks Landon’s Building Great Sentences
Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects
Richard Lanham’s Analyzing Prose
Brian Shawver’s The Language of Fiction
Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester’s The New Strategy of Style