It’s no secret that I am a fan of style and of teaching style, the third canon of rhetoric and, by any measure, an extremely important one today. So I’ve focused on style in all my textbooks and done a fair amount of research and reading about the history of style and about the fusion of style and “content.” More recently, I’ve thought long and hard about why style seems so important to me today and so necessary to teach our students to think about and to experiment with.
I’ve been deeply impressed with rhetorician Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention, which I’ve read twice and refer to often: in that book, Lanham argues that style is of the utmost importance to writing and speaking today because it is through style that we can get and hold an audience’s attention. Lanham traces the move from a “stuff” economy (think industrial revolution, Fordist principles, and manufacturing) to a “fluff” economy that deals not so much in concrete material objects but in immaterial ideas and information. Add to this shift the enormous changes wrought by technology, changes that make information more available to us than ever before, and the problem Lanham discusses comes into view: the ideas and information that will be effective and successful (often in monetary terms) are those that people attend to. Thus the “economics of attention” Lanham sees at work everywhere today. His analysis is astute and his advice straightforward: if you want to be heard in today’s society, you have to get people’s attention. And the major tool you have to do so is style.
Media consultant Howard Rheingold also writes extensively about the difficulty of getting and holding attention in Net Smart, another book I have learned a great deal from reading and studying. These two books are fairly old now, but they still strike me as prescient and accurate. Now I see “attention” commanding attention everywhere. In a recent issue of Wired, James Vlahos notes that “[In] the economics of the online world, …attention is everything,” and everyone from business CEOs to medical practitioners are talking about the “crisis” of being able to get their messages across and to capture the attention of audiences. Some of these folks are simply interested in building the bottom line or in making more and more money. But not all. Vlahos, for example, worries that the tech world’s search for “the perfect single answer” promised by Alexa and Echo and company (not quite there yet, Vlahos says, but very close) will reduce options and leave us at the mercy of single answers that have been chosen for us—and in that way choosing what we are able to pay attention to. Others like Lanham and Rheingold worry about how the truth (small “t”) can hold its own in getting attention with clickbait and lies.
As teachers of writing, we have a big stake in these debates and discussions, as do our students. In the long run, rhetoricians and compositionists need to be in on this conversation, carrying out research that can contribute to it in important ways. In the shorter run, we need to alert our students to the issues and especially to the need for them to focus on style as a means of getting and holding attention, and thus of having a chance to get their voices out there where they can and will be heard. Luckily, we know a lot about rhetorical strategies that can help command attention: everything from crafting electrifying titles and opening sentences to syntactic structures and word choices that pull readers/listeners along, to the use of visuals and graphics to hold attention, to the power of figurative language, and to the equal power of silence.
Still, I find that many teachers of writing say that there’s just no time to focus on style, that helping students with invention, with critical thinking, with organizational frameworks and drafting—all time-consuming and very important goals—seem more fundamental than style. I think it’s time, though, to question this assumption and to look at style as inseparable from inventing, thinking critically, drafting, and organizing. And then to create curricula that allow for this integration.
I would very much like to hear responses to these ideas and especially to hear of ways in which teachers of writing are already responding to the move I’m calling for. Please leave a comment below or write back to me directly at email@example.com. And thank you!