When Style Is the Substance (and Why It Matters)

For it is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought. ~Aristotle

To me, style is just the outside of the content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and inside of the human body–both go together, they’ can’t be separated. ~Jean-Luc Godard

Style usually means the game-and-play part of the message, but sometimes the competitive or the playful part of the message really is the message and so style becomes content. ~Richard Lanham

If you were to hike your way through this totally manageable sci-fi and fantasy fiction reading list (courtesy of NPR, 2011), I believe you would find that you enjoy some authors more than others for stylistic rather than substantive reasons.

For example, in The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny’s style is terse and conversational. In the Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb is sparing yet evocative, with a voice that tends towards the melancholy. The works of Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel’s Legacy) pulse with eloquence in ways comparable to the English Romance writers. Then there is the cranial, hyperbole-saturated wit of Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon; the Charles Dickens-esque rhythms of Scott Lynch in The Lies of Locke Lamora; the vivid, multifaceted space opera of Dan Simmons in the Hyperion Cantos; the gritty, colloquial simplicity of Stephen King in The Stand.

NPRFlowchart

While all of these authors have developed compelling stories, they differ markedly in how they animate their stories through style—and I suspect we underestimate the impact of this seemingly superficial difference. While I admire Roger Zelazny and Stephen King, my desire to re-read them is not nearly as strong as compared to Scott Lynch and Dan Simmons. The latter write with a unique, imaginative vigor that sets them well apart from most other sci-fi and fantasy authors in my mind. My wife feels similarly about Lynch. She “hangs on his words” and savors them like morsels, and is less enamored of styles she finds to be little more than lackluster carriers of drama.

Such tastes are subjective, of course. Some people prefer the plain, colloquial styles of King and Zelazny. Or perhaps you oscillate in your preferences. After soaking in one author’s style for a few weeks, you find yourself craving a different author for different reasons, only to find yourself craving the original author all over again.

Which begs the question: does style really matter that much? Isn’t the story the important part? Surely if the conflicts and the characters are solid, then style is of secondary significance. Right?

Yes, story is king, and always will be. But if you have a lot of good stories to choose from, then story begins to fade in significance because story is not what is scarce. Time and attention are scarce. And when that is the case, style plays a much bigger role. Style can become the substance because it is the primary way through which writers manage the precious resource of attention. After all, style is fundamentally about how you say or write a thing so that you get people to take notice, keep taking notice, and ultimately take action (especially if that action is to buy your book).

Let me put it this way. In the publishing industry in general, there are so many good books vying for our attention that we have trouble deciding what to read next. Consequently it is not only the “substance” that determines whether we pick one up. A book’s stylistic elements—the uniqueness of the prose, the intriguing title and synopsis, the cover art, the endorsements, the author bio, and so on—become all the more important, if not more important, than the story itself. This dynamic has profound implications for all writers, but perhaps more so for authors in an industry made increasingly competitive by digitization and self-publishing.

Before I expand on this point, though, I need to debunk two common myths about style. Left unaddressed, these myths will only obscure what I am talking about.

Myth #1: Substance Is Superior to Style

As I hinted at above, we usually think of style as the outer garment for our words. Substance, on the other hand, refers to the facts being dressed up, or packaged if you will, for delivery to the audience. Style is the fluff, substance is the stuff. This is reflected in the things we say. “He’s all talk and no action.” “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” Or in the eloquent words of Claire Randall, the resilient protagonist of Outlander: “Life among academics has taught me that a well-expressed opinion is usually better than a badly expressed fact, so far as professional advancement goes” (p. 35-36).

The problem with this formulation is that we have abused it to privilege substance over style. As English professor Richard Lanham points out in Analyzing Prose, we generally operate under what he calls the Clarity, Brevity, and Sincerity (C-B-S) theory of style, which states that we should not use flowery figures of speech to call attention to our words, but rather focus as efficiently as possible on conveying a point (p. 1). Admitting any other motive into the process, such as game or play, renders the author suspect and pretentious.

We can actually trace this low view of style as far back as the 4th century B.C., when Aristotle in his book On Rhetoric rather grudgingly acknowledges style as a necessary evil. The average American today would probably agree. “High” or “ornate” styles—which anyone can find in verbose academic texts, or bombastic political speeches that deserve the criticism they receive—strike us as pompous and needlessly complicated. Richard Lanham articulates this cultural attitude so well that he’s worth quoting at length.

Americans have always had a hard time with the high [i.e., dense or ornate] style. It is not so much that it is undemocratic — though it is that — as that it implies a difference between the public and the private self that our egalitarian social philosophy has always pretended doesn’t exist. We are, we like to think, what we are, whether in public or in private. No back-stage/front-stage difference divides our lives. This is an illusion but we cherish it. If someone writes in the high style, he is a fake, putting on the dog, insincere. (p. 161)

Another reason for our suspicion of style is our fear of being deliberately deceived or confused so as to stifle our ability to object. Think of a time when a badly-written instruction manual forced you to contact customer service. Or think of that dense high school or college reading assignment, in which you had the sneaking suspicion that the author took delight in inflating his or her ego through the use of jargon.

calvin-hobbes-on-writing-papers
A humorous illustration of the way academic style is often perceived. Thanks to my friend Suzanne for sharing it!

Or think of a speech or a law that either obscures evil behavior or couches horrific ideas in lofty, moral terms. Examples abound. A Nazi engineer referred to human victims packed into trains as “cargo,” as I’ve written about before. In the 1882 Alabama Supreme Court case Pace v. Alabama, the writers of the Alabama decision had the following to say about miscegenation:

The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races… Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization, the prevention of which is dictated by a sound policy affecting the highest interests of society and government. (qtd. on p. 28 of Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson)

One has to wonder: maybe the C-B-S theory of style really is the best? Just state the plain facts! No frills, no euphemisms or dysphemisms, no artful manipulation or misdirection.

But such a view runs into serious problems of its own. If the solution is a wide-sweeping denigration of style, what happens to the written and verbal rally cries by which inspire one another to respond to vicious, unjust rhetoric with conviction and courage? What happens to the intrinsic rewards of humor, fun, wit, theater, and competition? What, in short, happens to our delight in language? If we brand style as nothing more than superficial icing on the cake, or more cynically as a tool of the wicked—and we thus conclude that it is not worth incorporating into our rhetoric because pure “content” is what really matters—then not only do we dilute our humanity as thinking and feeling creatures, but we must rule out huge swaths of speech and literature that are integral to the human experience.

Myth 2: Substance Speaks for Itself

Consider for a moment a social or political issue you care about and on which you believe the facts are on your side. Whether it is gun control, education, or global warming, you may be so confident in the obvious truth of your view that you feel there is no need to be winsome in how you communicate. Let the facts speak for themselves, you say. People are reasonable; they’ll see the truth and act accordingly.

Or think of particularly arid types of communication: instruction manuals, court cases, news reports, scientific studies, and safety warnings. Are not these types most effective when they deliver facts without any stylistic trappings?

Aristotle seems to have preferred it that way. In Book 3 of On Rhetoric, he wrote, “we ought in fairness to fight our case with no help beyond the bare facts: nothing, therefore, should matter except the proof of those facts […].” But again this view is naive, and Aristotle knew it. Even a clear, simple style—what the ancient rhetoricians called the “low” style, in contrast with a “medium” or “high” style—is still a style. You still need to choose the right words and figures of speech to put your point across. “No actual utterance,” wrote social psychologist Michael Billig, “whether written or spoken, can only have content, for it must appear in some form or other. So-called ‘plain’ or ‘unadorned’ styles are themselves styles, which themselves can demand as much authorial skill as more floridly verbose rhetorics” (p. 3-4, Arguing and Thinking).

The deeper issue, though, which connects back to my point above, is that our insistence on the bare facts generally assumes an audience that is wholly rational rather than a messy, unpredictable amalgam of reason, emotions, and conflicting wants and desires. What if your audience needs something more than bloodless logic to galvanize them to action? And what if, in your zeal to be simple and clear, you end up being dull to the point of being ignored, or repetitive to the point of being tuned out?

For a real-life example of what I mean, consider Steve Jobs’ former doctor, David Agus, who had ambitions to share his principles for a healthy life with the rest of the world. This illuminating passage in Wired magazine’s profile shows how Agus faced resistance when he tried communicating his ideas to Andrew Grove, CEO of Intel.

“I love what you’re doing in the lab, but you’re not any good at telling people about it,” Grove said to the young researcher. Agus was defensive at first. “What does that have to do with anything? It’s good science,” he countered. Nonetheless, he began scheduling talks at hospitals around the New York area, 150 over the following year. “I forced myself to be a better presenter,” he says.

What Agus needed was not more evidence. He needed to realize what Claire Randall realized in Outlander: you can have a fantastic story, a fabulous idea, an important argument, and yet it amounts to little if you fail to present your message in a way encourages your audience to receive it.

In sum: style is not inferior to substance, and substance is not freestanding. They are inextricably intertwined.

When Style Is the Substance

But sometimes style is the substance. What does that mean, and why should writers care?

As you can probably guess, the idea isn’t mine: I am basing it on Richard Lanham’s thesis in his 2007 book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. His argument in the first chapter goes something like this.

Our modern American economy is not like previous economies in which material goods were scarce. Quite the opposite: the average citizen has plenty of food, clothes, shoes, appliances, and other commodities to choose from, and the money with which to buy it. Of course, poverty is a very real issue in America, and we need to fight it. At the same time, we probably all know social critics who (with good reason) have bemoaned our culture’s rampant materialism, and we probably all know individuals who would be better off with less stuff in their homes.

In this view of things, stuff is not scarce; information about stuff is, because that is what enables us to make the most informed buying choices. Hence you have probably heard a journalist or professor describe our economy as a “knowledge” or “information economy.”

But Lanham argues that we have plenty of information about stuff, too. (“We are drowning in it,” he says bluntly.) Thanks to the Internet, we can find volumes of information about this or that product, service, or commodity. And because of our smart devices, we are bombarded with notifications, messages, and alerts well past the point of overload. Neither stuff nor information about stuff are our scarce resources. Our scarce resource is attention.

So, Lanham asks, what happens when we have not an information economy but an attention economy? He astutely articulates several insightful implications. Liberal education, marketing, and design become just as valuable (if not more so) than science and engineering (p. 14). Visual artists and interface designers become the primary attention economists, given their skill in manipulating media (p. 17). Businesses now focus more money and energy on the importance of “brand recognition” (p. 18-19).

Lanham then takes these observations to bolster a broader, more consequential point: that “content” is not really the central concern anymore. There is plenty of content, and to make it useful, we must filter it to find what is relevant to our needs and interests. And the primary way this filtering is done is through style (p. 19). Style, an essential ingredient in all communication, is what directs attention to this or that object. It is what distinguishes your idea, your writing, your voice in the ocean of options. In an attention economy, style and substance trade places: substance moves from the center to the periphery just as style goes from the periphery to the center.

Examples of Style as Substance

Does this all feel a little too theoretical? Let’s consider some brief examples from movies, video games, and literature.

Movies

The plot of the movie Deadpool is by all accounts predictable. A distressed male at end of his rope turns to weird science experiment as a last-ditch effort to turn things around. The science goes wrong and royally screws up his looks, but grants him special abilities. He goes after the evil doctor who tortured him but who may have a cure for his ugliness. Kidnappings, drama, fights, and explosions ensue. Sounds like … well, like a lot of other super hero movies.

And yet Ryan Reynolds’ acting, combined with the bawdy, vulgar screen writing, distinguish it from other super hero films so rife with predictable one liners and tired moralizing about good versus evil. The film grossed $360 million and was generally applauded for its “attitude” and “charm” over its story.

I’d argue that Deadpool is a case where style is the substance.

Video Games

In 2014, when Bungie’s new game Destiny came out, a writer at the popular gaming site Kotaku criticized its lack of novelty. At one point she compares it to another first-person shooter, Borderlands, remarking why the latter sticks out more. “Borderlands may not be the same sort of juggernaut that Destiny is,” she writes, “but boy, it has a lot of heart, a lot of personality. Borderlands is in your face. Borderlands is memorable. That counts for a lot.”

Indeed. Somehow, the heart and personality of Borderlands left an emotional impression that eclipsed another high-budget first-person shooter whose mechanics were more or less the same (and yet whose scopes, admittedly, were quite different). Style, not gameplay, was the substance.

Literature

Here’s an easy one: “Call me Ishmael,” the opening line from Moby Dick. Personal and intimate right away, and far more interesting than, “When I was born, my mother and father christened me Ishmael,” or some variation thereof. The meaning in each case is identical; the difference in tone is colossal. I’m not saying that Moby Dick proves the style-over-substance concept, but I would argue that the style of the opening in this case is a unique bit of substance.

Or consider Scott Lynch’s prose in The Lies of Locke Lamora. The book is filled with page-turning hooks, clever exchanges, and creative portrayals of the mundane, all constructed like an Ocean’s 11 drama in a medieval fantasy version of Venice. Here’s how one of the early chapters opens:

Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.

And here is a snapshot of the dialogue, pulled off with a crackling choice of words (which in other novels tend to be far more prosaic):

“Have I got a deal for you!” the Thiefmaker began, perhaps inauspiciously.

“Another deal like Calo and Galdo, maybe?” said the Eyeless Priest. “I’ve still got my hands full training those giggling idiots out of every bad habit they picked up from you and replacing them with the bad habits they need.”

“Now, Chains.” The Thiefmaker shrugged. “I told you they were shit-flinging little monkeys when we made the deal, and it was good enough for you at the–”

“Or maybe another deal like Sabetha?” The priest’s richer, deeper voice chased the Thiefmaker’s objection right back down his throat. “I’m sure you recall charging me everything but my dead grandmother’s kneecaps for her. I should’ve paid you in copper and watch you spring a rupture trying to haul it all away.”

“Ahhhhh, but she was special, and this boy, he’s special too,” said the Thiefmaker. “[…] He’s got larceny in his heart, sure as the sea’s full of fish piss. And I can even let you have him… at a discount.”

To me, Lynch’s playful choice of words (“shit-flinging little monkeys,” “grandmother’s kneecaps,” “sea’s full of fish piss”) comes across as a fresh (albeit vulgar) twist of expression in a genre flooded with cheap, sarcastic dialogue. Throughout his book, Lynch maintains this style without detracting one iota from the story, but rather enhancing it by encouraging readers both to discover what happens next and to savor whatever clever flourishes are hiding around the corner.

One last example from him. Where many contemporary authors depict dramatic settings in a rather straightforward manner, Lynch does so here with memorable swagger.

THE BROKEN Tower is a landmark of Camorr, jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip of the Snare—that low and crowded district where sailors from a hundred ports of call are passed from bar to alehouse to gaming den and back again on a nightly basis. They are shaken through a sieve of tavern-keepers, whores, muggers, dicers, cobble-cogs, and other low tricksters until their pockets are as empty as their heads are heavy, and they can be dumped on ship to nurse their new hangovers and diseases. They come in like the tide and go out like the tide, leaving nothing but a residue of copper and silver (and occasionally blood) to mark their passing.

Implications for Writers

While Richard Lanham takes a whole book to articulate the implications of the style-substance swap for society at large, I’ll focus on what I think are a few key implications for writers.

Originality. Aspiring authors (of which I am a registered member) can get discouraged when they realize that nothing is new under the sun and they’re not generating some amazing new idea. But the style-substance dynamic reminds us that (1) very few authors are and (2) that mastery of style can still set us apart. Some of the smartest authors have recognized when a certain genre begins to get too tired and monolithic, and so they develop a story within the genre whose plot and characters are comparable to the established norm, and yet whose style bucks the trend. (Consider how many times the King Arthur legends have been retold over the centuries.)

We can take heart, in other words, in knowing that style gives us an infinite variety of ways to tell a story that people want to read, even if the story depends on ancient themes. As one writer at A List Apart put it, “a lot of people have probably arrived at the same ideas you have. The insights you have are not as important as your evidence and eloquence in expressing them.” He was talking about non-fiction, but the idea still applies.

Fun. The Clarity, Brevity, Sincerity (C-B-S) framework has some worthy qualities, assuming one knows specifically how they apply to a given scenario. But they cannot account for the spectrum of human experience. Human beings don’t just want simplicity. They long for elegance, play, and sophistication in prose. They like to be (indeed, need to be!) moved in ways that strict adherence to the C-B-S theory fails to accomplish.

I find this liberating because if someone asks us why we write, we don’t have to answer, “To make the world a better place” or “To tell truth to power” or “To help other people” (though I firmly believe all of those answers are true). We can also say, “Because it’s fun.” That takes a great deal of pressure off the task, or at least moves us towards a more holistic and satisfying conception of the craft.

Ethics. Someone might object that this elevation of style gives writers a license to manipulate people—to make the “weaker argument appear the stronger,” as the ancients feared. The same person might point out that we are already facing an ethically dubious situation where tech companies have been exploiting our attention to keep us hooked to our smart devices. By rehabilitating the power of style, aren’t we in danger of doing the same thing?

I won’t deny that style can be used to deceive, obfuscate, or direct attention in unjust ways. But that doesn’t automatically engender an “anything goes so long as I get what I want” attitude. It simply means that style is more powerful and important than we generally realize, and that failing to recognize its role will weaken our ability to communicate effectively, or to respond shrewdly when people try to persuade us. To use another one of Richard Lanham’s insightful phrases, style and substance are not “contending opposites but fruitful collaborators” (The Economics of Attention, p. 254).

There is a lot more to say here. From Plato and St. Augustine to scholars like Richard Weaver and Stanley Fish, thinkers of the past and present have been thinking about the ethics of rhetoric and style for a long time, and my goal right now isn’t to comment at length on the matter. I do have a few additional thoughts, though.

First, in his excellent book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams proposes an ethics of writing that is much like the Golden Rule of Christianity: “Write for others as you would have others write for you” (p. 220). By this he means that writers ought to scrutinize their motives and techniques with honesty, and to consider who benefits (and who doesn’t) when we move our readers’ attention in this or that direction. To this I would add that the act of writing is best carried out in the context of a diverse community of people who can review your work and give you candid criticism—and who can hold you accountable if and when you go astray. (It’s also worth noting that Williams discusses the converse of this principle, namely, our responsibility as readers to read another writer’s work thoughtfully and generously. That is, we should be prepared to listen patiently and give a writer the benefit of the doubt, while also equipping ourselves to recognize questionable manifestations of rhetoric.)

Second, Richard Lanham uses the term “oscillation” to refer to the act of toggling between style and substance in an ongoing, dynamic fashion. Though I find this concept vague and difficult to grasp, I do find one of Lanham’s analogies helpful: the difference between writing and revision. Whereas writing forces you to focus intensely on articulating the substance of your ideas, revision makes you to step back and consider the text itself, fine-tuning its shape until you achieve maximum effect. So I think Lanham is saying that you can look for a golden mean, a balance that allows you to stay true to the “fruitful collaboration” that substance and style ought to have.

Perhaps another way to think of it is this. The more you think about and reflect on the content of your ideas, the better you will get at putting them across stylistically. The act of “putting it across” then forces you to carefully choose the right words for the occasion, which in turn can clarify and sharpen what you were thinking to begin with.

Conclusion

You might say, “All of this is still too abstract for my taste. How do I improve my style so that readers understand and appreciate what I have to say?” Or: “I tend to write with one kind of style. How do I broaden my stylistic range?”

That of course is where reading, practice, and life experience come in. Joseph Williams’ instructive book on style is a great place to start if you’re looking for hands-on guidance. You have probably heard famous authors recommend other good books, too: Style and Difference (Donna Gorrell), On Writing (Stephen King), The Elements of Style (Strunk and White) … the list goes on.

And yet in the same breath those authors will also tell you that no book is a substitute for sitting down, writing the words, and having fun. There are all sorts of styles, for all sorts of occasions. Read them, experiment with them, delight in their diversity, discover which ones you hate, relish the ones you love. I suspect that doing so will not only make you a better writer, but help you more fully enjoy the gift that writing is.

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