Good Prose: The Problem of Style

It can be a problem, can it not?

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd are talking about writing style this week.

They mention some of the tried and true, such as avoiding the verb “to be” in all its forms and passive voice, and Mark Twain’s “Never use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do” with a word of caution.

“The familiar rules about writing turn out to be more nearly half-truths, dangerous if taken literally…”

The main goal to keep in mind, they say, is “clear and vigorous prose.”

With that in mind they give us four categories of writing styles of which to beware:

1. Journalese

This is that type of talk that is acutely aware that “space is tight.” It is characterized by the use of nouns as adjectives, such as Novelist William Faulkner or Motorist Rodney King. This writing style feels hurried, like a newspaper article.

There is no need to rush,” say Kidder and Todd. But the real problem with these style choices is that “…they violate normal rhythms of speech … Good readers and good writers use both eyes and ears. And for a reader who hears the words, the shorter sentence actually takes longer to register. It is hard to hear, and thus the reader resists it. Sometimes longer is shorter.

2. The New Vernacular

This is the style of writing that “…makes the diction and rhythm of common speech into art.”

The authors point out that the Internet has helped promote this style of writing, commenting, “informality is the natural voice of the blogger.”

That made me smile and several voices came to mind.

“…It’s friendly, it’s familiar,” they say.  But the danger here is that the new vernacular can come off sounding somewhat false—as if trying too hard.

…this is prose that seeks an instant intimate relationship…The writer works hard to be lovable…The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.

3. Institutionalese

This is the opposite problem of the new vernacular. Instead of the intimacy of informality, Institutionalese comes across as pompous and impersonal.

This was the longest section by far and the authors reveal their bias with thinly veiled humor.

…Why does it continue?” They ask, citing several examples of jargony, “overstuffed prose.” They caution against the pompous writer’s use of overfamiliar metaphors, stating, “When metaphors are fresh they are a form of thought, but when they are stale they are a way to avoid thought…

Yet, even here when so obviously in disdain of the writer who uses such pompous language, Kidder and Todd show their classy character.

“But read the pompous writer with sympathy!” They say. “A scared and a confused creature lurks behind the self-important drone of that voice……It takes some confidence to write clearly.”

4. Propaganda

We’ve all witnessed this sad display in political speeches and debates; it is a dualistic use of language that blatantly attempts to tilt the meanings to benefit one’s position.

The authors don’t mince words here.

“…Use enough words wantonly and you disappear before your own eyes. Use them well and you create yourself. This is why writers must own their language. Own your language or it will own you.

They end with a brief discussion on “voice,” indicating that some use this term interchangeably with “style,” but that it usually attempts to convey something more—such as the writer’s personality or “presence on the page.”

“…If you can’t imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn’t write it…” they say. “So listen to yourself. And it helps to keep one’s ear tuned to the great voices that have preceded us, not to copy them but to be inspired by them…Listen to yourself, and listen to those writers who are so great that they cannot be imitated…”

One thing I’ve gleaned from this chapter is that I need to buy a copy of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 

Second Draft:

Do you recognize your style among the four the authors mention? Try this: take one of your old articles and deliberately try to mimic one of the styles mentioned above. Journal about the exercise. Was this hard to do? Does it help you identify any patterns in your own writing? 

On Wednesdays, we’re discussing Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Next week we’ll discuss chapter seven: Art and Commerce.

Other posts in this series: 


  1. says

    I read aloud everything that I write, and it really helps me to catch a lot of the things they bring up in this chapter. I admit, some “journalese” creeps in, but sometimes I have to do that to document facts.

  2. Pamela Kuhn says

    Maybe a mixture of a couple? I want to go back and read the others in this series. So good to reflect and improve our craft.

  3. says

    I just stopped by in a hurry- need to come back and read it all again slowly and find myself in these descriptions. Voice is such an important thing- and so hard to unearth sometimes. I feel like i’m finally finding my own after decades of mimicking others. LOVE the comment you left at the Overflow- just smiling picturing the chatty morning routine at your house. My boys are talkers, too- such a gift — one i hope never fades. I can’t read minds, especially male ones, so it sure helps when our sons just put words to their thoughts. Yesterday I heard my fourteen year old son asking his six year old brother “what makes you happy? I mean, really happy? ” You know that I stepped closer to the kitchen and eavesdropped. Guilty but glad i did! Hope your week ends well. Praying you through all the writing you’re doing, friend.

  4. Hazel Moon says

    Writing according
    to the “rules” is probably not something I do. Usually I am careful
    to spell check, and search for good grammar, but other wise, my daughter says I
    write in Hazel speak.

  5. Shelly Miller says

    Oh, I just love this series Laura, its been so helpful. Like Megan, I read everything out loud to try to catch some of these things but I worry about the institutionalese in my writing. I literally think and naturally write in metaphors but sometimes I worry they are too abstract. It’s like cooking for me. I learned to cook on gourmet recipes and had to unlearn that to cook ordinary meals when I had children. What is normal for some people is backward for me.Thanks for this, its making me think. I do think its helpful to have feedback from other writers, we are often too close to really know if some of this shows up or not.

  6. Nancy Sturm says

    This sounds like an excellent book. I appreciate you sharing their insights. Now I think I need to do some revising on style. 🙂


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