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Composition Forum 19, Spring 2009

Style, Student Writing, and the Handbooks

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Nate Kreuter

Abstract: This essay examines the disappearance of the study of style from rhetoric’s disciplinary research agenda and from contemporary writing classrooms, linking the decline of disciplinary interest in style to contemporary writing handbooks, which tend to treat style in reductive ways. Also pointing out the disappearance of “sentence-based” style rhetorics, the essay argues for a disciplinary re-commitment to the study and teaching of style, one of the original canons of classical rhetoric. The essay ends with several pedagogical examples of how to re-introduce style to writing classroom, as well as an invitation to other scholars to share their approaches to teaching writing style.

Flip through any number of contemporary writing style manuals, of which there are at least dozens, and you will find a very one-sided perspective on what the most effective writing style is. The grizzled patriarch of contemporary style manuals, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, tells us that prose should be simple, clear and concise, always: “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity” (69). And so do virtually all of the style manuals that have followed. Consider two more recent examples, each displaying the trusty admonitions to clarity and simplicity: Joseph Williams writes in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, “This book rests on two principles: it is good to write clearly, and anyone can. The first is self-evident . . .” (4); while Lester Faigley writes in The Little Penguin Handbook, “Too often long sentences reflect wandering thoughts that the writer did not bother to go back and sort out” (154). There is little acknowledgement in most of today’s writing manuals that student writers, who certainly should be able to write with an economy of language, can also be taught to generate more sophisticated prose—prose that swoops and soars, prose that bends and twists, prose that laughs and cries, prose that offers suspense or rhythm or rhyme or all three. Different prose for different occasions. {1}

The style manuals that many of us order for our writing classes tell students to write simply. We teach from these same manuals. And, in the face of teaching twenty to forty, or even more, students each semester (many of whom have difficulty generating coherent sentences, let alone coherent papers), we too often tell students, “write simply.” Write simply, simply write. Simple is right, right simple. It is, well, simpler for us to dish out such seemingly tried and true advice than it is for us to take on the complex grammatical, syntactical, and conceptual problems that occur when student writers attempt sophisticated prose styles.

As we demand that our students compose simple prose, we also demand that their writing confront complex issues, environmental, economic, social, ideological, cultural, and textual issues that have the capacity to, and routinely do, cripple our legislatures, let alone terrified, ill-prepared undergraduate writers. We encourage students to tackle complex controversies, to see the subtlety of controversies, and eventually to articulate a nuanced perspective on their chosen or assigned controversies. But “write simply,” we often tell them. And if we don’t tell them to write simply, the style manuals we often require for our courses do. Effectively, many of us ask student writers to condense the most complicated and sophisticated of problems into the simplest, least-sophisticated prose. Address the most complicated problems in our culture, we ask students, but do it in short, sweet prose, we demand. While there is merit in being able to cut to the rhetorical quick, sometimes a complex sentence best conveys a complex idea.

If the style manuals are any indication, however, the only correct prose style for contemporary writers is one of brevity and relatively simple syntaxes. In the contemporary composition classroom, style—if it is dealt with at all—is really nothing more than a catch-all, stand-in for “grammar” or “punctuation” or “correctness.” Maybe, if a student is lucky, it also refers to “voice” and choosing the proper register in which to address a specific audience. And while I think that any rich conception of style has some relationship to voice, when I use the term “style” I do not mean “correct grammar” or the punitive practices associated with teaching grammar that are so rightly out of favor in the academy today. Style, until its conflation with correctness, often has been thought of in terms of elegance or linguistic dexterity, and sometimes has been seen as "beyond" correctness, so that correctness becomes a logical precursor to elegance. Contrariwise, I want to insist upon looking on style as a different category entirely. Style is not more correct than correctness; plain style is not a step toward elegance. I want to ask: what would happen if, rather than striving for stylistic clarity, we encouraged students to achieve stylistic sophistication? And sophistication would be demonstrated by a mastery both of simple and complex, contextually-informed prose styles, and the wherewithal to know when each is appropriate. This is not a new conception of style, but a very ancient one. Yet, the renewed interest in classical rhetoric has not led to a renewed interest in rhetorical style (as opposed, I want to emphasize, to correctness). But my idea of style certainly does not prevail in most contemporary composition scholarship, handbooks, or classrooms.

This essay will examine a number of contemporary style manuals in order to reveal their tendencies to reduce “style” to “clarity.” In an attempt to complicate style and to—in Paul Butler’s words—“reanimate” style, I will further offer a series of suggestions for the writing classroom. These suggestions, far from the final word, are intended to be generative, intended to inspire not direct mimicry of my own style-oriented pedagogical practices, but a conversation. It is my ambition that other teachers will be provoked to consider how they treat style in the classroom and, in cases where others are already dealing with style, to share their thoughts and practices with the rest of us. Consider this entire essay a grand invitation/provocation to consider the role of style in the writing classroom.

Style, Clear & Simple

During the 1960s and 1970s, style was dealt with in the form of sentence rhetorics or pedagogies, pioneered primarily by Francis Christensen and Richard Lanham (Connors 97). The notion of condensing the classical canon of style into the study and teaching of sentences was itself a truncation, for certainly style must operate on a scale larger than just that of the sentence. But the notion is understandable. Sentences are discrete and definable, far more so than larger units of prose, limiting style in ways that, while reductive, make it easier to study and teach.

Concurrently, a business-driven academic model equated “good” writing with a plain, clear style, the better and easier in which to transact written business (Lanham, Style 28-32). Over time, “good” writing has come to mean, even more simply, “clear” writing. The reduction of style into sentence rhetorics was a truncation that may seem troubling. But more troubling still is our current disciplinary moment, which does not even deal with style at the sentence level but accepts and indeed assumes the righteousness of the commandment that equates style, or at least the only widely acceptable style, with “clarity” and correctness.

Robert Connors notes how style-centric, as I’ll call it, inquiry largely disappeared as a vein of scholarship and pedagogical methodology during the early 1980s. In “The Erasure of the Sentence,” Connors explores the contemporary history of sentence-based pedagogies from their revival in the late 1960s to their sudden disappearance around 1983. Of the style-conscious, sentence-based pedagogies, or “syntactic methods,” Connors writes, “Of all the inhabitants of this limbo of discarded [pedagogical] approaches, there is no more dramatic and striking exemplar than what was called the school of syntactic methods” (97). By sifting through the major publications of writing theory, Connors demonstrates how interest in sentence-based (read, style-based) pedagogies “died away after 1983 or so. The articles on sentence issues fell away radically” (107). Connors attributes the decline of sentence-based, style-conscious pedagogies to three factors: first, the rise of anti-formalism, “the idea that any pedagogy based in form rather than in content was automatically suspect” (110); second, anti-automatism or anti-behaviorism, a set of critiques “based in the idea that pedagogies that meant to tap into non-conscious behavioral structures and to manipulate them for a specific end were inherently demeaning to students” (113); and finally, anti-empiricism, which suspected the empirical research methods being used to quantify the effects of sentence-based pedagogies on student writing (116-120).

Connors argues, though, that these three challenges to sentence-based pedagogies were largely unfounded, and certainly unsupported by research, for “if people believe that research has shown that sentence rhetorics don’t work, their belief exists not because the record bears it out but because it is what people want to believe” (120). What happened then? As it turns out, the demise of sentence based pedagogies was perhaps cultural:

The sentence was erased by the gradual but inevitable hardening into disciplinary form of the field of composition studies as a subfield of English studies. . . . These three attitudinal strands [anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism and anti-empiricism] are hallmarks of English studies and not of works in other fields—speech, psychology, education—from which composition grew after 1950. (121)

So, for a combination of reasons, interest in and application of sentence rhetorics fizzled out almost entirely in American rhetoric and composition in the early 1980s.

Currently in composition, empiricism and anti-empiricism have more or less settled into equilibrium, and anti-formalist and anti-behaviorist concerns, while not gone, have been addressed, most notably in the case of style-based rhetorics by Richard Lanham. However, even with Lanham’s continued and almost single-handed championing of style-/sentence-based rhetorics, style- and sentence-based pedagogies remain largely absent from composition classrooms and scholarship. {2} All the while, “style” manuals and conventional composition wisdom continue to warn students to always strive for the hallmarks of “clarity” and “simplicity” in their writing, to strive for correctness. Concerns about style aren’t entirely absent from current pedagogy, but style is troublingly conceived in most cases, reduced conceptually to an issue of correctness.

Connors’s “The Erasure of the Sentence” was, in addition to a disciplinary history, a call to return to sentence rhetorics, a call that has been met with a resounding silence, with very few exceptions, one of which is Sharon Myers’s 2003 article “ReMembering the Sentence,” where she cites work in linguistics that validates the approach of sentence-based pedagogies. Myers’s essay seeks to return to the sentence, primarily by showing that a pedagogical consciousness of style is intimately linked to the smallest definable unit of prose, the sentence. Rather than an historical approach, the essay focuses primarily on the current state of style within the discipline of rhetoric, examining first contemporary style/writing manuals, and finally introducing a dialogue of perspectives between the major and (relatively) recent advocates for style/sentence rhetorics, a conversation in which Richard Lanham is essentially talking to himself. Similarly, Susan Peck MacDonald’s 2007 essay, “The Erasure of Language,” characterizes the current inattentiveness to style as symptomatic of rhetoric’s more general “erasure of language”:

This erasure of language shows up in composition courses when they exclude attention to the sentence level in order to focus on the text level. It shows up in literature courses that dismiss the study of style as empty formalism or that focus more on ideas, theories, and social influences than on close attention to the language of texts. (586-87)

Another exception to the neglect of style in composition scholarship is John Dawkins’s work, most notably “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool,” an essay in which, I would argue, the terms “style” and “rhetoric” are essentially synonymous, and punctuation is seen as a means of achieving a variety of stylistic effects. The subtlety with which Dawkins sees choices in punctuation is in sharp contrast to the view taken by many contemporary writing handbooks, where punctuation, a correctness rather than style issue, is most often “taught” through lists of maddeningly reductive grammar rules. Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects moves in a similar direction, falling somewhere between the traditional, rule-laden writing handbooks and the richer conceptualization of grammar-as-style that Dawkins articulates. With that said, I’d like to look briefly at some of the more conventionally conceived writing handbooks and their treatments of style.

The Handbooks

Forty years ago, before the wax and wane in sentence rhetorics Connors describes, Francis Christensen called rhetoric’s attention to its own neglect of style, a neglect reflected in style manuals, then as now. His words are, problematically enough, as relevant and true today as they were forty years ago. He lectured:

No one can teach composition, or evaluate the compositions of the students he teaches, without acting upon some assumptions about style. These assumptions are rarely consciously formulated; they manifest themselves in the hit-and-miss comments we make on student papers and, for most teachers, they are derived ultimately from the handbooks. For decades, the handbooks have been derived from one another. Their chapters on the sentence are mainly negative, rules for salvaging misbegotten sentences. Where they are positive, they are couched in terms of simple, compound, and complex sentences or of loose, unbalanced, and periodic sentences. When one weighs the magnitude of the tasks of the schools in teaching writing against this trivial kit of tools for doing it, one wonders about our right to call ourselves a profession. (134; emphasis added)

Reading what Christensen wrote forty years ago, where the phrase “the handbooks” can only be read with a pejorative sneer, makes Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—that didactic, Old Testament god of style manuals—look even a bit more grizzled than upon first glance. Christensen’s recognition of the shortcomings of writing manuals informed his sentence-based pedagogies, which encouraged students to learn how to write longer, more complex sentences in pursuit of a readable, but more sophisticated (also called “mature” in Christensen’s day) prose. More on sentence-based pedagogies later. But what of the handbooks, which Christensen argues have conflated style with correctness? I would like to look at several contemporary examples, simply to ground us in some of the recent attitudes towards style that have been committed to posterity and presumably represent the wisdom of the day.

Any discussion of contemporary style manuals must include a discussion of The Elements of Style, for, while it is not exactly a recent text, it maintains popularity and persists in a fourth edition, after millions of copies have been foisted upon high school and college students. It is, for better or worse, the granddaddy of contemporary style manuals. While I have already taken some pleasure in characterizing Strunk and White’s book as a crusty, lecturing old man of a text, I have been, perhaps, a tad unfair. But the book is easy to dismiss in our era of rule-shy, prescription-wary inquiry. And The Elements of Style is nothing if not a list of rules. Or, phrased in the positive form, as the book commands (section II, rule 15, page 19), the book is a list of rules. The rules speak for themselves and simultaneously illustrate the book’s strengths and shortcomings. Laid out, dare I say it, clearly, and with unwavering confidence, the rat-a-tat-tat delivery of rule after rule in The Elements of Style must certainly be a comfort to a certain brand of student, the same student who rolls her eyes when she asks her teacher a question about writing, and the teacher’s answer begins, “Well, that depends . . . .” But the rules’ concreteness is precisely what makes the rules a liability—they cannot adapt, and adaptation, it seems to me, is what writing is all about (“Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate” [section I, rule 8, page 9]). Well, that depends . . . . Certainly, though, the rules proffered in The Elements of Style, and many of the style manuals that have followed it, must be a solace for the students seeking concrete, definitive answers for their sticky, messy questions about writing. But I am not so much concerned with the rules because they consistently conflate style with correctness.

What I am concerned with is the fifth and final section of The Elements of Style, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders).” We can ignore the “List of Reminders,” for they are nothing more than an additional list of rules. Of far more interest is the philosophy towards prose style articulated at the beginning of the chapter. Here I realize that I’ve been a bit too hard on Strunk and White’s granddaddy of style manuals. Contrary to my earlier pigeon-holing of the book, and contrary to its prescriptive rules sections, The Elements of Style offers a relatively nuanced (and humbling, considering the authors) view of style:

Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised. There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion. (66)

The passage is telling, and worth citing by virtue of how thoroughly it informs and represents contemporary attitudes towards prose style by those charged with teaching writing. We see here the acknowledgement that style is a slippery thing, a difficult phenomenon to describe, let alone teach. Perhaps difficulty of expression explains the extended use of figurative speech in the passage, as Strunk and White abandon, albeit gracefully, their own advice to “use figures of speech sparingly,” (section V, rule 18, page 80, appearing in the same chapter and fourteen pages after the passage cited above). But who would argue that Strunk and White were wrong to abandon their own maxim when they included multiple metaphors in this passage? The metaphors lend the passage its meaning, providing elegant examples of the ephemeral phenomenon they wish to describe. Here figures of speech make the very meaning of the passage in a way that more literal language could not, and yet Strunk and White steer aspiring writers from the same devices just pages later.

But the nuanced sense of style that the passage initially describes, of which there is “no satisfactory explanation,” is nonetheless followed in the same chapter by no less than twenty-one rules (“reminders”) for writers to follow when it comes to style. We also see in this passage the familiar aspiration to clarity. Perhaps I haven’t been too hard on this text, for in the same breath in which it acknowledges the complexities and difficulties of style, it exhorts its readers to follow yet another set of reductive rules. In a line I cited earlier, and worth repeating, Strunk and White abandon the subtlety they established at the beginning of their section on style, writing that “the approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity” (69). The precedent set by The Elements of Style remains. On the rare occasions when students even hear the subject of prose style addressed, it is often through rules—reductive, preachy and sometimes even hypocritical rules.

Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams, is another popular and much more recent style manual that enacts the same often reductive appeals to, as the title makes so very plain, clarity. One of Williams’s primary goals is to eliminate the dense writing of “bureaucratese,” “legalese,” and “academese.” For Williams, the writing associated with these three pejorative terms in not simply difficult and boring to read, but also unethical: “Written deliberately or carelessly, it’s a language of exclusion that a democracy can’t tolerate. It’s a problem [elitist writing] with a long history” (4). Complexity and density represent the worst possible qualities that writing can offer, according to Williams. Williams sees unclear writing as the bane, not to put too fine a point on it, of students’ academic careers when he writes that “generations of students have struggled with dense writing, many thinking they were not smart enough to grasp a writer’s deep ideas. Some have been right about that, but more could have blamed the writer’s inability (or refusal) to write clearly” (8). While Williams’s language may be stronger than most, the sentiments he expresses are common to contemporary writing manuals. Most of Williams’s manual is devoted to “clarity,” while only about a fifth of the text addresses “grace.” The book concludes with a section addressing “The Ethics of Style,” in which Williams defines “opacity” in writing as unethical. Williams is unique not in his championing of clarity, but only in his elevation of clarity to an ethical issue.

Lester Faigley, whose early empirical research (“Generative”) directly validated Christensen’s sentence-based pedagogies, shies from, and turns students away from, complex sentence structures in his own style manual, The Little Penguin Handbook. In the “Style and Language” section of his own style manual, Faigley addresses the issue of complex, or “long,” sentences and directs students away from them, writing under the heading “Simplify Tangled Sentences,” that “long sentences can be graceful and forceful. Such sentences, however, often require several revisions before they achieve elegance. Too often long sentences reflect wandering thoughts that the writer did not bother to go back and sort out” (154). Rather than advise students on how to revise long sentences into elegance, Faigley dodges the problem by offering students strategies only for simplifying sentences, abandoning any opportunity to help students achieve a more sophisticated prose style. Brevity is simply simpler to teach.

Faigley’s advice for “untangling” long sentences consists of revising out expletive phrases, using positive constructions and simplifying sentence structure (154-55). However, such rules seem only likely to incite students to utter a different variety of expletive, or as Richard Lanham writes about the prescriptive rules of writing manuals, “A student, if he is on scholarship or has an ambitious mother, may actually try to earn all these merit badges. But if he has any spirit, he’ll murmur a well-chosen four-letter word and go out and get stoned” ( Style 15). Faigley’s “untangling” advice is the extent of his advice on style. The Little Penguin Handbook contains additional rules of grammar usage and some advice for students to adopt a suitable register in their writing, but on the balance there is very little instruction to be found in the book, and what little there is comes in the form, not surprisingly at this point, of rules—rules that vary very little from those of the Elements of Style or Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. The rules, it seems, are a genre unto themselves.

Also of note in The Little Penguin Handbook is the very lack of prose. There is simply little writing in the book. What little writing it does contain is delivered in short snatches, framed by bullet-points and graphics we might expect to see on a webpage. The book’s form, its graphics-laden, word-shy pages, seem to reflect the visually driven internet, of which Faigley often writes, more than the textually rich documents that we expect students to generate in our writing classes. And surely there is an irony at hand when a writing manual contains so very little writing.

By pointing out the ways in which these three texts marginalize style in their calls for clarity, I do not intend to criticize the authors, or their ideas about style. I have no doubt that in the proper hands, any one of these texts could be fruitfully employed in a writing classroom to talk about and explore the myriad issues that arise when we think of style. I also realize that the demands of publishers, who don’t always have students’ best interests at heart, shape these texts in profound and often frustrating ways. Perhaps the greatest liability these manuals (and all of the others I could have as easily examined and dismissed here) present is a result of how manuals are most often employed in our writing classrooms, which is really to say how they are not employed, but instead are often thrust into students’ hands and expected to speak for themselves. It is the slap-dash way in which we foist writing manuals upon students and don’t problematize the rules such manuals offer that serves students least. Such neglect is yet another symptom of how neglected the entire “style” conversation is in current rhetorical theory and pedagogical practice.

High Stakes Style

With so many contemporary style manuals discouraging stylistic experimentation and pushing the clarity hobgoblin, it’s obvious that attitudes towards prose style and its teaching have changed little since Christensen and Lanham launched their campaigns to reinvigorate style in the late 1960s and early 1970s, respectively. Lanham’s early perspective on the teaching of style is worth revisiting, for it describes the state of our discipline surprisingly well even thirty-four years after it was written. In his 1974 book Style: An Anti-Textbook, Lanham writes of his project:

It argues that the premises from which the study of composition now departs— clarity, plainness, sincerity—are incomplete and seriously misleading. It suggests alternative premises and an alternative pedagogy, and is thus about both prose style and the teaching of prose style, addressed to both student and teacher. (ix)

Clarity, the “be-all and end-all” of most style manuals, is the problematic term Lanham takes the most issue with, writing, “What do we mean by clarity? How may we separate clarity from special interest, from attempts to persuade, or from correctness? . . . Does clear writing really make for clear thinking?” (Style 2). Strunk and White, Williams, and Faigley all appear, at least in their manuals, to believe that clear writing makes for clear thinking, and perhaps vice versa (66; 4; 154). Lanham continues, lambasting the typical American freshman writing course in which style is the last concern of a usually ill-prepared set of teachers and students in a university setting that consciously seeks to expel style, in all but its most transparent manifestations, from student writing: “Writing courses usually stress, not style, but rhetoric’s other two traditional parts, finding arguments and arranging them” (13-14). The relegation of style to the back sections of style manuals, its affiliation as a term with “correctness,” and style’s noticeable absence from most composition classrooms certainly aren’t coincidental.

For Lanham, the lack of concern with or instruction in style at the university level is a reflection of the broader American disdain for stylistic flair in writing (Style 9-10). In contrast with British English, Lanham writes that for Americans, “the best prose style is the one that styles least. In the best of all possible worlds, there would not be any words at all to mislead, only concepts” (Style 10). He continues, “A typically American commandment is thus precipitated out: Thou shalt be as clear as necessary in order that the world’s business be done efficiently and civilization thereby preserved” (Style 11). {3} Notice that what Lanham identifies as a uniquely American disdain for style is precisely what Williams, in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, enacts when he accuses an “elite” style of being anti-democratic. Lanham criticizes this pathological American desire for clarity, a desire that not only undermines varied, interesting writing, but, even more problematically, also supports a false model of human cognition:

The dogma of clarity, as we shall see, is based on a false theory of knowledge; its scorn of ornament, on a misleading taxonomy of style; the frequent exhortations of sincerity, on a naïve theory of the self; and the unctuous moralizing, on a Boy Scout didacticism. (Style 19)

In his most recent work, The Economics of Attention, Lanham argues that stylistic consciousness is no longer just a tragically neglected mode of writing and thinking that has been usurped by a false notion of knowledge building, but that style is the primary commodity, the capital, of the new “information economy.” In the book, which is subtitled Style and Substance in the Age of Information, he writes of this new economy:

Normally we would think that the phrase “information economy,” which we hear everywhere nowadays, makes some sense. It is no longer physical stuff that is in short supply, we are told, but information about it. So, we live in an “information economy.” But information is not in short supply in the new information economy. We’re drowning in it. What we lack is the human attention needed to make sense of it all. (ix)

Where does style factor in to this new economy? Well, for Lanham, style doesn’t factor in to the new economy at all. It is the new economy:

The devices that regulate attention are stylistic devices. Attracting attention is what style is all about. If attention is now at the center of the economy rather than stuff, then so is style. It moves from the periphery to the center. Style and substance trade places. (ix-x)

Whereas Williams finds stylistically opaque writing (in the sense of Lanham’s use of the word “opaque”) to be anti-democratic, Lanham is offering a perspective on the new information economy from which not enabling students with a variety of attention-grabbing styles, including “exclusionary” ones, would itself be anti-democratic! Discouraging students from practicing and employing a variety of stylistically unique modes of expression (bureaucratese, legalese, academese, to name a few) would, for Lanham, amount to discouraging students from full participation in the new information economy.

Lanham’s defense of specialized styles has its roots in his earlier work, and so I return to Style: An Anti-Textbook. In the book’s second chapter Lanham displays, among other exhibits, a letter written by an “aspiring academic bureaucrat” in which more stringent teaching evaluations are announced to a university’s faculty (25-32). After providing the original text of the letter and then “translating” it into a “clear” or “plain” prose, Lanham reflects, writing:

To the licensed bureaucrat, the plain version seems automatically suspicious. It sounds flip. The writer may not be taking his problem, and above all himself, with sufficient seriousness. Read a little more deeply. Evaluation of teaching is the touchiest subject on campus to the faculty right now [in 1974]. Anything you say is going to offend someone. A windy, free-floating verbosity presents itself as the best tactic. “Be clear” is disastrous advice. (27)

While we may find it boring to read, the academic bureaucrat’s prose was precisely what the situation at hand called for, an exercise in gravity, obfuscation, and decorum. Lanham’s sense of prose style, and what determines the appropriate prose style, is contextually dependent. He writes of “The Books,” the writing manuals, with the same distrust that Christensen does. Providing an example of the liabilities of generating an inappropriate style, Lanham elaborates in his discussion of the academic bureaucrat:

If he wrote the kind of [clear, plain] prose The Books recommend, he would lose his job. Prose style does not work in a vacuum, except in Freshman Composition. It works in a context. The context makes it what it is. If you don’t consider context, and often in some detail, you will not understand the prose style. (28)

So, it is not a contextually aloof, style-for-the-sake-of-style position that Lanham is advocating. Instead, as he argues in The Economics of Attention, a contextually savvy style makes the difference now not just between successful and failed rhetors but also between our new information economy’s winners and losers, a dynamic that will only become a higher stakes proposition as the new information economy becomes more deeply entrenched.

Lanham’s position here is fortified against the assaults that brought down Christensen’s sentence-based pedagogies. Christensen’s sentence-based rhetoric was criticized, notably by Sabrina Thorne Johnson, on the grounds that “Christensen seems to believe that form can generate content. I don’t believe it can, especially if the content is of an analytical or critical nature” (qtd. in Connors 111). Much of the criticism leveled at Christensen accused his sentence-based pedagogy of teaching in a contextual vacuum, of failing to reconcile sophisticated sentence patterns with the more practical concerns of academic and business writing. Lanham’s insistence on deriving the appropriate style from the context of the writing situation has the potential to allay some of those concerns.

Dishearteningly, Lanham does not heed his own call in Revising Prose. The book, Lanham’s own effort at a style manual, falls into the same rule-heavy genre as the manuals already discussed, perhaps indicating that there are some inherent problems with attempting to transfer sophisticated ideas about prose into a writing manual. Whether these problems are the result of publishing demands or authors’ obsequiousness to the style manual genre, I’m not sure. Even Lanham falls into the rule-bound trap, leaving the divide between his theory and pedagogical practice agape. Also telling, Lanham’s Style: An Anti-Textbook spent years out of print until a re-issue in 2007 by Paul Dry Books, while Revising Prose has remained in print continuously and is a popular writing manual in its own right.

I hope that by now the terms “style” and “sentence rhetorics” seem closely intertwined. They are. I hope also that the terms “style” and “correctness” seem very distant from one another. They are. I’m not sure that any discussion of style can take place in the classroom without, at a minimum, paying close attention to individual sentences. Connors is right to point out that sentence rhetorics have all but disappeared from writing pedagogy, but concerns about style have not disappeared entirely along with the sentence rhetorics. In fact, we talk a lot about style in writing manuals. People, and particularly the authors of writing manuals, do write about style, but not in a rich way, preferring rules and dogma to richer conversations that, while probably not capable of providing students with definitive answers, might imbue students with a more sophisticated perspective on style. In the contemporary style conversations, truncated as they are, there is little acknowledgement that style makes meaning, or at least has that potential. So, while there are a few isolated efforts to complicate contemporary notions of style, the conversation is stilted, defined by an artificial desire for “clarity” and a failure to acknowledge the potential sophistication of student writers.

Style in the Classroom

If we experience any success in our attempts to reinvigorate the disciplinary discussions of style that have been neglected for twenty-five years and, more importantly, to reanimate our pedagogical obligation to teach style to undergraduates in a rhetorically meaningful way, I suspect much of the credit for that coup will go to Paul Butler’s recent book, Out of Style: Reanimating Stylistic Study in Composition and Rhetoric. And rightly so, for it arguably offers the most thorough discussion of style’s role in the discipline since Christensen’s Notes Toward a New Rhetoric. While Butler largely agrees with Connors’s explanation of the disappearance of style-/sentence-rhetorics, Butler does have his own read on the situation, in which he links the marginalization of the style canon to the marginalization of current-traditional rhetoric. He writes:

In associating style with current-traditional rhetoric—a term that has acquired negative connotations over the years—and thereby discounting it, we have failed to see the study of style for what it actually represented during composition’s process movement: a set of innovative practices used to generate and express language through the deployment of rhetorical features. (143)

Well, sure, fair enough. I suspect that Butler, Lanham and—could we resurrect their voices—Connors and Christensen, would all agree that we have neglected style in our scholarship and in our classrooms these last twenty-five years, for whatever reason. As many readers of this article might also agree. But what of it? How do we as a discipline discover and deploy “innovative practices used to generate and express language”? How do we bring style back to our students?

A return to style, while it could dramatically improve student writing, and perhaps even their lives, would not require dramatic institutional changes. It would require the commitment of individual teachers. I believe that the quickest way to empower students with the stylistic savvy that Lanham argues they need to survive in the information economy, and that we all know would enrich their writing, is to demand greater sophistication from student writing. There are at least several avenues to bringing style back into the composition classroom in ways that will cultivate such sophistication: adding courses that explicitly address prose style; adjusting how we deploy writing handbooks and train writing teachers (e.g., graduate students); and inviting students themselves to see the handbooks and their rules as rhetorically situated and (while certainly not useless) as rhetorically limited, rather than as rigid commandments that would govern all rhetorical situations.

As an example of the first avenue—addressing prose style explicitly in focused courses—there is a course at the University of Iowa that does exactly this. Called simply, “Prose Style,” it is an upper-division English course that is cross-listed with Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program. The class was originally created by Carl Klaus and has since been inherited by Brooks Landon, who has continued to hone the course into a razor of teaching innovation. It is unlike any course I have ever heard of, focusing as it does on the smallest definable prose unit, the sentence. {4} The course’s unique approach to writing (and concomitant success in improving student writing) probably explains why it has survived into an era so otherwise oblivious to the canon of style. The opening paragraph of Landon’s course description is worth citing:

Just sentences. Whatever we can learn about how they work, what they do, how we can think and talk about them in ways that will help both our own writing and our understanding of prose style. Part of our concern will be with stretching our sense of options—all the things a sentence can be and/or do, and part with the notion of style itself. In other words, this is a course in which we will dance with language, not a course in which we will trudge toward remedial correctness.

Notice what this initial paragraph does and does not do. It flaunts conventional grammar rules by opening (a course description on sentences no less) with two incomplete sentences. But, rather than flaunt the rules for the sake of it, the description clearly (that word again) has a rhetorical goal in mind. The paragraph, in both its language and arrangement of that language, is an invitation to students to see prose as something playful, something fluid, and, ultimately, as a powerful, even if slippery, tool. The course’s explicit goal is to stretch students’ writing options, a goal that to my ear sounds quite harmoniously in accord with rhetoric’s larger goal of helping students to recognize, understand, and intervene in a wide spectrum of rhetorical situations. Landon’s description is not a call to the rules or correctness, nor to the conformity or simplistic-ness that the mantras of “simplicity” and “clarity” have become.

In “Prose Style,” students never focus on a unit of prose larger than the sentence, never write an essay. Instead, they write dozens and dozens of sentences for each class in which they experiment with various prose patterns, later sharing their creations with classmates in a daily workshop. The sheer immersion in new prose patterns (cumulatives and periodics, for example), explicitly studied and practiced, cultivates a self-awareness that forces students to acknowledge the rhetorical effects of different prose styles, effects that they can then weigh and deploy in their own lives as they encounter very different rhetorical situations, whether they are writing up a copy of Aunt Bev’s pecan pie recipe for the church bulletin or drafting a complaint about unfair treatment to the local police chief.

But I am not delusional. Even in my perhaps naïve optimism, I do not pretend that upper-division prose style courses, even if they were to be universally adopted overnight, would solve the style problem. Such courses, with their limited reach, and admittedly nerdy titles and goals, will be of little use to the average writing student—the student who takes one or two semesters of mandated writing courses and has little or none of the love of language that might drive a different brand of student to enroll in a course like “Prose Style.” Not to mention the fact that offering courses like “Prose Style” is a luxury beyond the means of many of our institutions.

In my own state of Texas, I have yet the opportunity to teach such a course. But there are certainly more modest approaches to style that have the advantage of being more immediately employable by individual teachers and the potential to reach a far greater number of students than any single prose style course ever could. Texas, in its effort to legislate sound teaching practices, requires first-time, graduate student writing teachers to take a course on teaching writing. Such a venue, which I suspect exists in many other states as well, is the perfect place in which to address how we employ handbooks and how graduate students, who frequently conduct the bulk of writing instruction, treat style in the classroom. In my experience, graduate students are some of the worst abusers of the handbooks. Often separated from their students by only a few years of age, they frequently cling to what they know as a means of establishing authority in the classroom, and dammit, most grad students know commas. But most graduate students also have some savvy—know when it is appropriate to layer on labyrinthine prose constructions, and when prose needs to be lean. Requiring grad students to read articles such as John Dawkins’s “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool” would, under style-sensitive tutelage, encourage less experienced writing teachers to take a more nuanced view of grammar and correctness, a nuance that I like to believe would bring us back to a collective mindset wherein style and rhetoric are mutually supportive terms, working symbiotically to empower students with rhetorical dexterity and flexibility. Graduate students, and all those who teach introductory writing, must be consciously steered away from rewarding correctness and into rewarding stylistic dexterity. The two are not necessarily the same thing.

But perhaps the most efficient way we can return a sophisticated notion of style to our classrooms is to turn our focus back to the humble sentence. I repeat Susan Peck MacDonald’s lament: “This erasure of language shows up in composition courses when they exclude attention to the sentence level in order to focus on the text level” (586). In my own classroom, I try to focus students’ attention on the sentence at least several times per semester.

In one exercise, I isolate ailing sentences from student papers, sentences that either have some grammatical problem or that, while grammatically correct, simply don’t sound right, the kinds of sentences that would garner an all-too-common-but-not-explanatory comment of “awkward” from many writing instructors. I paste these sentences, at least one from each student, into a single document and project them in class. Then, one by one, the class and I go through the sentences, trying to identify what I call the “bump” in the sentence, the moment where, for whatever reason, the sentence loses the reader. As we go through the sentences, I require each student to rewrite each one, attempting to maintain, as closely as they can figure it, the author’s intended meaning. Students then share their versions of each sentence and are exposed to the reality that there might be twenty ways to express the same idea, each of which carries its own subtle differences—differences that might only be superficial or that might dramatically affect the meaning/reception of the sentence. The exercise highlights what many of us probably take for granted: if individual sentences don’t function on their own, their dysfunction will cascade throughout the rest of the text, obscuring meaning and frustrating students’ arguments. The exercise is an invitation and admonition to students to “ReMember” the sentence.

Another exercise that my students seem to find especially helpful strives to link various prose styles to an array of audiences. I call the exercise “Asking for Cash,” a title inspired by Erasmus’s comment that asking for money is perhaps the most difficult thing for a rhetor to attempt. Each student is given an admittedly ridiculous premise—they have blown their last $100, money they needed to pay their registration bill, on an outlandish date, and now they must beg for a loan so that they can pay their tuition and not be dropped from their courses for the semester. Each student then draws a slip of paper from a hat to find out whom they will be trying to get the money from. The audiences range dramatically, from “your best friend” to “your uncle Homer, who has a miserable job in a nuclear power plant and never had the opportunity to go to college.” In class, the students write their appeals, only several hundred words, and by virtue of having witnessed all the possible audiences, intuit that their own letters will need, in terms of both content and style, to be tailored to their audience. Students then read their letters aloud, realizing, if they haven’t already, that the way we address our parents is necessarily very different from how we would address the university president.

Exercises like the two I have just described need to be valued and practiced in the writing classroom, for they serve a larger educational goal to enlighten students how style functions rhetorically. I am fortunate enough to work in a department with a culture that encourages teachers to enter each other’s classrooms, to share expertise and educate collaboratively. In this environment, my sentence rehabilitation exercise has become a traveling road show of sorts and (from all reports) is appreciated by students who are routinely encouraged to think only in terms of “argument” and seldom encouraged to think in terms of “sentences” or “style,” students who are not encouraged to see the text from the sentences, so to speak. My experience leads me to believe that discussions of style can be very quickly and profitably re-introduced into our classrooms through the work of—and forgive me for this, because I am deeply fond of the term despite its preachy ridiculousness—style evangelists. These style evangelists, individual teachers, many of whom probably have far more, and far more effective, exercises than my own, need to share their style-oriented classroom practices with their colleagues. Similarly, as a discipline we must facilitate such sharing through publications and conferences, so as to reinforce what many of us already know: style as a concept and practice is rhetorical, and mastery over a variety of styles is rhetorically empowering.

We have come a long way from the handbooks, eh? I hope by now that it is obvious that I don’t want to throw our writing handbooks into the middle of the disciplinary town square and douse them with kerosene. I do want to complicate the handbooks and their rules, and to give students a stronger sense of the options that a fluency in style will afford them as rhetors. Certainly I would never encourage one of my students to begin the cover letter for a law school application with, say, the same sense of playfulness (or grammar) that Landon employs in his course description, just as I hope my students do not, after leaving my one of my courses, begin to email their families and friends in the stilted prose that typifies the academy. What I do hope is that after leaving my classes students have the dexterity to write in both modes (and many others), as well as the savvy to know what style is appropriate to what situation. Rhetoric is for me, as it is for Lanham, largely about civic empowerment, and I want students to be able to master the bureaucratese of their local zoning commission as well as the idiosyncratic prose that some future employer might require of them. Neither mode will ever be entirely replaced by the “clarity” the handbooks call for, and so forcing students to master a contrived, contextually aloof clarity is ultimately a terrible disservice to students and our discipline.


  1. Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller (University of Texas at Austin) for her advice throughout the crafting of this article, as well as Professor Brooks Landon (University of Iowa) for so generously providing access to his Prose Style course and materials. (Return to text.)
  2. Lanham’s advocacy for a style-conscious composition pedagogy has evolved over the years. The most eloquent and impassioned call for a return to style appears in Style: An Anti-Textbook, which I refer to here. (Return to text.)
  3. Victor Vitanza might characterize this condensation of style into sentence rhetorics as an effort “to systematize (the) language (of composing)” (140). And indeed it was just such an effort, with resultant reductions in our disciplinary notion of what constitutes style. This “tamed/socialized” notion of style, to again invoke Vitanza, allowed a further harnessing of style for an economically driven mantra: “Learn to write this way and you, too, can be successful as a white, male and middle-class producer of clear, coherent, easily consumed prose” ( 142; emphasis in original). If Vitanza’s linking of “systematized” writing pedagogy (in this case, style systematized into sentence rhetorics) sounds familiar, it is because it echoes Lanham’s similar but earlier explanation of how style came to be erroneously conflated with misplaced notions of “clarity” and “coherence” in the disciplinary commandment: “Thou shalt be as clear as necessary in order that the world’s business be done efficiently and civilization thereby preserved” (Style 11). What Lanham and Vitanza point out about the style conversation is that sentence rhetorics that explicitly sought to understand and teach style in the writing classroom were already reductive in nature, and linked to a misbegotten sense of writing that subjects verbal expression to the exclusive service of capitalism. (Return to text.)
  4. OK, I’ve heard of one other, “The Sentence,” at Carnegie-Mellon University, but I haven’t seen it for myself. I assume that the CMU course is rich in ways similar to the Iowa course I describe here. (Return to text.)

Works Cited

Butler, Paul. Out of Style: Reanimating Stylistic Study in Rhetoric and Composition. Logan: Utah State UP, 2008.

Christensen, Francis, and Bonnijean Christensen. Notes Toward a New Rhetoric: Nine Essays for Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Connors, Robert J. “The Erasure of the Sentence.” College Composition and Communication 52.1 (Sept. 2000): 96-127.

Dawkins, John. “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool.” College Composition and Communication 46.4 (Dec. 1995): 533-48.

Faigley, Lester. “Generative Rhetoric as a Way of Increasing Syntactic Fluency.” College Composition and Communication 30.1 (Feb. 1979): 176-81.

———. The Little Penguin Handbook. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

Kolln, Martha. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

Landon, Brooks. “Prose Style Course Description.” Unpublished course description, 2002.

Lanham, Richard A. The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago, IL: U Chicago P, 2006.

———. Revising Prose. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

———. Style: An Anti-Textbook. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

MacDonald, Susan Peck. “The Erasure of Language.” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (June 2007): 585-625.

Myers, Sharon A. “ReMembering the Sentence.” College Composition and Communication 54.4 (June 2003): 610-28.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan, 2000.

Vitanza, Victor J. “Three Countertheses: Or, A Critical In(ter)vention into Composition Theories and Pedagogies.” Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age. Eds. Patricia Harkin and John Schilb. New York: MLA, 1991. 139-72.

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 8th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

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