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Reading for Style

Reading for Style

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches how to analyze a text with a focus on style.

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Source: “What we Feel,” The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 20, No. 122, December, 1867 pp. 740-44.

Video Transcription

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. So what are we going to learn today? We're going to focus on style, how to read for it, what it is, and how to identify its key elements in an academic text.

When we talk about style, at least in the context of writing, we mean it to encompass everything about how the author writes. It's the manner in which writing comes across rather than what's been written about. Think of it as the how versus the what, and you'll be thinking about style.

Style is a tricky concept to tackle, since it permeates everything. But if we break it down into more easily conceived elements, we'll stand a better chance of doing justice to the subject. The primary components of an author's style are tone, rhetorical appeals, any persona or narrator the text uses, as well as potential bias, and the author's language choices, and any unstated assumptions the reader is being asked to make.

First, let's talk about tone. Tone, put most simply, is a writer's attitude in a piece of writing. Is it casual, friendly, cold and analytical, aggressive, somber? How do you imagine the writer felt or wanted to feel when writing?

The next thing to consider about style is the rhetorical appeals that the text makes. Appeals to logic, authority, and to emotion, logos, ethos, and pathos. Given that almost any argument can be made in multiple ways, the method the writer chooses tells us much about his or her stance in regard to the subject and the audience that he or she intended to write to.

For example, if an essay relies heavily on appeals to authority, chances are the intended audience is or was meant to be a community that values authority, as opposed to one that would respond better to an emotional appeal.

We should also question whether the writer chose to use a persona or a narrator for his or her text. A narrator is a storyteller, a perspective from which the story is told. If we get the sense that the storyteller is anything other than the writer him or herself, then we know that there's a narrator, or at least a persona involved, which changes our relationship with the writer, making more distance between us.

This isn't very common in traditionally academic texts, but much of the more modern genre blurring writing you're likely to see will make use of these. When thinking of style, we also have to consider authorial bias or the way the author's backgrounds and perspectives impact the text.

If, for example, the writer of an essay about the World Series of baseball was born and raised in Europe, he or she would probably have a different set of beliefs about the name of the tournament than would a writer from Connecticut. This leads us to unstated assumptions.

We need to be on the lookout for any ideas that are implicit in the way the text is written, ideas that are assumed but not written out directly. If, for example, a piece advocating for increased military disarmament worldwide assumes, without stating as much, that smaller armies mean less war, that's an unstated assumption, one that readers may or may not agree with, and one that gives us insight into the writer's perspectives and style.

I should probably state here that bias and assumptions aren't necessarily negative. After all, everyone has their own biases, and pretending otherwise only seeks to deceive readers. It's more important that you, as a reader and as a writer, do what you can to be aware of your biases, then make them clear rather than trying to hide them.

And as you read, look for ways an author tries to reveal his or her biases. It's easier said than done, but when you see it happening, you'll know you have an author who's really trying to be as honest as possible. The big part of observed style are the language choices a writer makes.

This is his or her use of sentence variety and syntax. Are the sentences long and complex, forcing readers to go slowly through them, considering each point before moving on? Or are the sentences short and choppy, quickly moving readers through the text onward and onward?

These differences will drastically change the reader's experience with the text, as well as all the other stylistic choices and unconscious tendencies that an author makes and has. As with many aspects of English composition, the only real way to understand reading for style is to actually do it. So let's do it.

Let's look at this excerpt from an article titled "What We Feel." Pause the video and look it over, watching as you do for indicators of the author's style, the tone, rhetorical appeal, persona or narrator, potential bias, language choices, and unstated assumptions.

So what do you think? Let's start with tone. What would you say is the author's tone in the piece? Is it casual? I wouldn't say so. I call this tone erudite, or to use a simpler term, it's scholarly, or perhaps overly intellectual.

Tone is mostly conveyed through an author's language choices. For example, the second to last line, "It moves with such wondrous rapidity as to traverse hundreds of thousands of miles in a second." The fact that the author chose not to write something simple, like, for example, "Light travels at a speed of thousands of miles per second," tells us something of the intended tone, right?

I don't see any evidence of a narrator or a persona in this piece. But then it's not always easy to see one, especially in such a short selection from a longer essay. Well, what about authorial bias or unstated assumptions?

Well, one telling moment I noticed comes in the second line, when the author writes that "A man would seem to be out of his senses." That should tell us something. Mostly, it dates the text as having come from a time when it was politically and socially acceptable to refer to all humans and readers as male.

But there's a little bit more to it. It tells us almost without a doubt that the writer himself is male, and it tells us that when he imagines a man looking at grass and not seeing green, he really is imagining a man. That's one unstated assumption of this piece that we do, too, or at least that we don't have a problem with his point of view.

Another is that we, his readers, generally agree with the scientific explanations the text uses as a starting point. For example, from the way the explanation of light is stated, we can probably assume the writer believes we've heard it before and that we've accepted it as true. If we didn't, the last line would have no impact. It wouldn't serve to draw us further into the essay, which is always one of the purposes of the first dozen or so lines in a text.

So we know a little of what the author probably thinks about us, about himself, and about the text. And we know it because of what the author's style has revealed to us. Now the questions to ask are, what do other author styles reveal about them? And perhaps more importantly, what does your style say about you?

What did we learn today? We learned about authorial style, how to read for it, what style means in an academic context, and how to identify the stylistic elements in a piece of writing, as well as what those elements can tell us about the writer and the writing. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.