The Intuition behind Style

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Is style “the man himself,” as many have said? The “dress of thought” as Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son? Or “the counter-point of a writer’s character,” in Goethe’s view? H. L. Mencken thought that the essence of style was that “it can never be reduced to rules”; Katherine Anne Porter that “you do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style emanates from your own being.” Some say style inevitably reveals the writer’s character; others say only a fool would believe that claim.


Over the decades I have thought a lot about style, and I’m inclined to agree that it is not rule-governed though it is, or can be, developed. I’ve talked about style with hundreds of students (maybe thousands), and always remember a question I got during a talk I gave to 500 freshmen about style: “Can you tell me how to make my sentences sing?” Well, I can give some tips, offer a few ideas, but I can’t give a step-by-step process that will create singing sentences. Especially my own.


I had all these thoughts in mind when I picked up Keith Rhodes’s “Feeling it: Toward Style as Culturally Structured Intuition,” which appears in the December 2019 issue of College Composition and Communication. “Culturally structured intuition?” I thought. Tell me more! So I dove into the essay with great interest, and I wasn’t disappointed. After providing some background on his own interest in style, Rhodes sets forth his hypothesis: “style flows from the writer’s intuitive intentions more than from any other influence—including any specific methods that we teach.” (He’s using the term “flow” here in both its everyday sense and in the more specific one put forward by Csikszentmihalyi.) And he then goes on to make a bold leap to connect this view of style with the “liberatory goal of supporting students’ right to their own language.” “Bravo,” I thought, and read on.


Rhodes then reviews research in the field on teaching style and traditional pedagogical methods for doing so, finding little that seems viable today—except for current research on translingual dispositions toward style, to which he returns toward the end of his essay. Before that, however, he describes a small study in which he and colleagues taught style directly and then examined student writing to see if they could find evidence that the formal concepts they were teaching showed up in student writing. They did—in the very short run, but disappeared in later writing: “There was no demonstrable high-road, transferable learning about the language for particular features of style.”


Faced with these findings as well as with his own intuitions and his interviews with students, Rhodes hypothesizes that students did resonate with intuitive concepts like “voice” and “tone” and “conciseness.” Perhaps, Rhodes, suggests, we should “jumble the order of students owning their language—feeling more capable of using voice fluently to fit varied rhetorical situations and social settings.” In short, he says, echoing Kate Ronald, we should help students feel “at home” in their writing, and he goes on to argue that we should help them expand that notion of “home” to include numerous “homes.”


This move brings Rhodes back to “Students’ Right to Their Own Language”: “rather than frame the transaction as a patronizing granting of rights . . . teachers can help students explore the genuine uses of their existing felt sense of style in new contexts.” Doing so will help students practice developing more control of style in ways that can help them write sentences that “sing.” Working from this more structured, culturally situated, intuitive sense of style also fits very well with translingual approaches to teaching writing, approaches that bring community writing/speaking practices into the classroom and into student writing.


In the last part of the essay, Rhodes discusses translingual dispositions, code meshing, and the challenges of using both effectively in widely diverse classrooms. The entire article is well worth reading and studying—and talking with students about. Certainly I’ve learned a lot from thinking about the issues Rhodes raises; my big takeaway right now is that students can develop not style but styles, not voice but voices, and they can do so using intuitive everyday language. I’d love to hear other responses to these ideas since I am convinced that style is not a separate element of writing, but rather inextricable from content and infinitely worthy of our attention.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 447577 by Andrys, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.