Style, and when to talk about it

We worked on style in my class today, and I thought I’d share the exercises we did, because on the off chance that any of you decide to experiment with them, I’d love to hear how it goes for you (particularly if you try them at a different point in the whole draft/revision/editing process). My students are turning in the final version of their first essay on Friday, but as soon as I finished this class, I realized it probably would’ve been more helpful to do something like this earlier in the writing process. Here’s what we did:

Basically, this was a series of 3 short writing exercises. First, I had them write up a how-to guide for a simple task of their choice (how to cook an egg, how to post something on facebook, etc). Then I had them write a paragraph beginning a letter to a loved one they miss — a parent, a sibling, a high school friend, boyfriend/girlfriend at home, etc.

Once they were done, we read the how-to’s aloud and talked about the style. What’s consistent across all the examples? What assumptions are made about the reader? How is the writing organized? etc. Then we did the same for the letters to loved ones, and noted how big the differences were in all these basic features (for example, addressing a general, unknown audience vs a specific person you’re intimate with; proceeding in a clear step-by-step fashion vs. a less directed and more loosely associated progression; talking only about concrete steps/actions vs foregrounding thoughts and feelings, etc).

Then I asked them to do a mash-up in either direction. Either write a how-to in the style of a letter to a loved one, or a letter to a loved one in the style of a how-to. The idea was that they should try to communicate the same thoughts as before, only switch the style. As you can imagine, this produces some funny stuff, but the point of this step is that it’s almost impossible to do. If you try to write a set of instructions in the form of a love letter, it’s pretty difficult to actually communicate how to do something. And as one student pointed out, if he were to actually write a letter to his mom in the “how-to” style, she would probably get upset at him because it’s so cold and lifeless. One student added that what he had produced when he turned his letter home into a how-to was really more like a poem than either a letter or a set of instructions. I thought this was right on, and a great way of getting at the larger takeaway that style is not simply window-dressing or a fancy costume that you put on your writing; it actually determines what you can and can’t say, in a very real sense.

These exercises led to a brief discussion of the kind of writing we’re doing for this class, which is when I realized this exercise probably would fit better at the beginning of the essay-writing process than the end. What it really seems to do is get students to feel how the style they’re using either facilitates (or impairs) their ability to say something. If we had done this earlier on, I wonder if they would then be in a better position to observe certain features of academic writing as style in these terms — practices or conventions that contain assumptions about who is reading and why, and that make it possible to say some things better than others. I think many of our students have been encouraged (either intentionally or unintentionally) to adopt a style that feels formal and academic, without being asked to consider why, or towards what end. I think an exercise like this might be a good way to open up that kind of a discussion.

If any of you are still in the early stages of drafting or revising, consider giving it a try and let me know how it goes!


1 thought on “Style, and when to talk about it”

  1. Hi Luke,

    Unfortunately I didn’t try the exercise, but I enjoyed reading your post because it addressed a couple of my pedagogy obsessions: incorporating writing that isn’t about literature, and the fact students are told “to adopt a style that feels formal and academic, without being asked to consider why, or towards what end.”

    Regarding writing that does not address literature specifically: I find that my students are better stylists when they are writing about something more personal to them – someone they know, for example. I wonder how it would be if you did this same exercise earlier on and then repeated it using a paragraph or two from one of their projects about literature. What would happen if they re-wrote the paragraph in the style of an email to a friend, a letter to a loved one, an address to a younger sibling? I hope to try something like that next semester.

    I’m also very frustrated by pseudo-academic style. We had a conversation in class the other say about why it might actually make you a more trustworthy writer to say “I believe” or “I will argue” even though they are told to avoid first person in high school. I too have been doing style exercises as a cosmetic last step, but I suspect it would be more meaningful for them and would inspire more substantive conversations about writing as a unique form of knowledge if style exercises happened early and often.

    Thanks for starting this conversation!

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