Awakening Your Stylistic Instinct

From my friend Ruth Cauble, I inherited a book called COMMON SENSE ABOUT WRITING, by Thomas H. Cain. Its copyright date is 1967, making it a brand-new book when Ruth won it as a prize in a writing competition. She inscribed the flyleaf: “Rec’d for first place award in the Grace Gaylord Creative Writing Contest  — June 9, 1967 — R. Sammons Cauble.”

I’m endlessly interested in matters of style, so I turned first to chapter 7, titled “Expression: Style and Sentences.” Dr. Cain, who wrote the book when he was an associate professor of English at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, defined style as “the total effect of writing.”

“It is the effect achieved,” he wrote, “by the ideas, the order, the paragraphs, the sentences, and the words all working together harmoniously.”

Cain recognized that a writer’s style is a very personal thing. No two people will write exactly alike, or even agree completely on what constitutes good style:

“The reason may be that when you try to express your ideas in the best words, sentences, and sequences of sentences, a whole army of subjective human variables comes into action: personal factors, individual gifts, range of experience, reading background, discretion, sense of decorum, feeling for rhythm, and plain taste … style springs from just such individual sources.”
Style, then, is partly subconscious: it arises from a writer’s way of thinking. But by reading widely and intensively, we can sharpen our stylistic instincts.


We’ve all heard the advice to read widely in the genre in which we wish to write: picture books, chapter books, memoir, novels, etc. According to Alan Cheuse, author of novels, short fiction, and memoir:


“You can’t write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates.”


To help you read in the writer’s “peculiar” focused way, Dr. Cain suggested this exercise:


  1. From a book you especially admire, choose a passage of about 12 or 15 sentences. Read the passage silently.
  2. Note the structure of each paragraph.
  3. Read the passage aloud, listening to the stages in the paragraph structure and especially to the rhythm of the sentences and how they vary in length and emphasis.
  4. Now copy the passage slowly by hand (don’t type), sentence by sentence, first reading each sentence aloud and noting its pattern of emphasis and rhythm.
  5. Copy the entire passage again (typing it if you wish), listening for the way the sentences work together in groups of two or three.


“By the time you reach Step 5,” Cain predicted, “you will find that you have almost memorized the rhythm and scheme of emphasis in some sentences, even though you can’t quite repeat the words. This is enough. The whole point of the exercise lies in sensing when sentences sound right. It marks the awakening of the stylistic instinct that guides most professional writers as they write.”


I did this exercise with one of my favorite books, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman. In analyzing a page chosen at random from near the middle of the story, I noted unusual similes, questions presented in groups of three (employing “the power of three”), specific and colorful word choices, strongly rhythmic phrasing, and the use of the conjunction “and” to create both a driving rhythm and a smooth flow. On just that one page, I identified and studied a wide range of the techniques that contribute to Pullman’s powerful and pleasing style.


Dr. Cain suggested doing the exercise one hour a day for a week or two. This kind of intensive reading isn’t a replacement for an extensive reading background, but it can be a useful crash course in developing your stylistic instinct.


(Thank you, Ruth Ann. I love the book.)


Reprinted from the May/June 2010 issue of The SCBWIs of Texas, the newsletter of the North Central/Northeast Texas Chapter of SCBWI.


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2 Responses to Awakening Your Stylistic Instinct

  1. Shelley Caldwell

    Thank you – that exercise sounds fun as well as useful and productive. I’ve recently been doing the opposite while reading a mystery that is enjoyable: good plot, mostly realistic characters, and clever twists, but occasionally something about the style impedes or even stops the flow. To keep from going bonkers over it, when that happens I’ve been analyzing how the author managed to irritate me. It only takes a second or so per instance, so it’s not much of an added burden, and I find I am not so irritated. And perhaps – just perhaps – I’m learning some things to avoid.

    • Thanks for your comment, Shelley! A smoothly readable style is among the principal things I require in a book. If the writing is awkward, I quit reading. But if I admire an author’s style and voice, I’ll enjoy the book even if its plot and characters aren’t wildly original. A case in point is “Agnes Grey” by Anne Brontë. Anne did not write with the power and passion of her sisters: “Agnes” is a lesser work than “Wuthering Heights” or “Jane Eyre.” But it is beautifully written. The Irish novelist George Moore praised “Agnes Grey” as “the most perfect prose narrative in English letters.” I won’t go that far, but I remember how much I enjoyed it, even though I can’t name a single character from it now (other than Agnes herself). The plot was forgettable, but the style is witty, subtle, and beautifully understated. Unfortunately for writers like me, subtlety and understatement are not much valued by most modern readers. I think I am a Victorian at heart. 🙂

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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