A thought regarding style versus content

Over at Vox’s blog he had a post about Amazon’s editor’s pick for books. Among other things he said “a novel consists of four elements, Style, Story, Characters, and Ideas.”

I worked a long time on TSCB, and I thought it had some great characters, a solid story, and some interesting ideas, and the writing style was what I like to call “serviceable,” that is, clear and easily read and understood. Not particularly flashy or eloquent, more Hemingway than highbrow.

I knew it needed polish, so I hired an editor, and I think I got a good one. She worked hard on it, and she definitely improved it, but it was a process that definitely raised my blood pressure whenever I received an email from her. She made a lot of very good criticisms, and my writing absolutely improved. But when she started making a second pass to polish it up a bit, I suddenly realized after struggling mightily with a massively rewritten paragraph that I liked my original version (well, slightly modified by the first pass) much better. And, more importantly, I was able to put my finger on what exactly the problem was. I like simple, clear, easy to read and understand prose that means exactly what it said, and the heavily rewritten version was what I saw as being much more “literary.” It didn’t sound like me, or my characters, at all. I said “I’m done.” I finished up by rejecting many of the most recent edits, asked her what I owed her, made sure the formatting looked good, and hit the big PUBLISH button.

I like clean, simple, easy-to-understand sentences. I like having likable characters. Occasional poetic passages to capture a mood are fine, but an unending series of bad things happening to bad people in a depressing story? No, I’ll take a pass on that. I don’t care how great the style is, if I don’t like the characters, I can’t learn anything useful from them, and there is no significance or value or cool ideas in the story, then it’s a waste of my time.

1 thought on “A thought regarding style versus content

  1. Simple and clear is good. I know I have to be careful about that in my own writing; I tend to long sentences. I like to blame it on Livy (from high school Latin) who is notorious for half-page sentences.
    And yes, the content comes first. Style matters to the extent it gets in the way. If your sentences are muddled, or you do things with language that confuse the reader, the content is obscured.
    It’s different if you do poetry; there the form is every bit as critical as the content. But in prose fiction, your approach is the right one for me, and I dare say for the majority of readers.
    Some writers go for weird form. They may get raves from academics, but who cares if no one reads them? Have you ever met anyone who read “Ulysses”? And while I read “Galapagos (by Kurt Vonnegut) only because of the title, I would not dream of ever recommending it to anyone I’d like to keep as a friend.

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