At some point, every writer is faced with the idea of “style.” Writers may spend their entire lives searching for one to call their own. One may be praised for their excellent use of it one minute then berated for a complete lack of any the next. More common than writer’s block, “style” is a major buzzword in the writer’s world, thrown around at every level from junior highers to Pulitzer winners.
The only problem is no one tells you what the hell “style” even means.
Despite being an ambiguous term in numerous ways, style is still something that sets apart the greats from the far-from-greats in the world of writing. Unfortunately, to make a name for one’s self, a style is a necessity. Finding a style is no easy task, especially when it extremely difficult to pin point in the first place. Luckily, for writers on paragraph two or trilogy number four, Chris Holcomb and M. Jimmie Killingsworth step in to attempt the impossible: teach style.
In Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition, the authors are aiming to make the abstract idea of “style” a concrete tool writers everywhere can utilize. While attempting to explain these tools, the authors use their own techniques masterfully to exhibit just how well these ideas can be executed whilst writing.
A crazy meta-pedagogy? Perhaps, but brilliant and successful? Absolutely.
Performing Prose offers over 200 pages and 10 chapters (plus one lovely grammar appendix) of discussions on style, technique, and more, but the strongest techniques that they weave into their style is strong use of footing, creating a comfortable atmosphere for the reader; an effective use of tropes and schemes, particularly the analogy; and artfully jumping between the ideas of convention and deviation.
The concept of footing is a metaphor used by Holcomb and Killingsworth to replace the notion of “voice.” They explain footing as a physical characteristic that writing must take on, concluding that “style is never merely produced and sent abroad into the world; it is delivered, shared, negotiated between an author and an audience” (61). They use this idea to explain the the social space-which includes things like social standing, social roles, and social dialects- and physical space a work takes, namely the point of view.
The social space occupied in Performing Prose is not one typical of your average textbook. The authors carry on a familiar tone, giving the feeling of a friend lending some casual advice. The text is littered with random jokes and innuendos, from Star Wars references: “syntactic inversions in prose often suggest a poetic, archaic, even gnomic feel (think of Yoda from Star Wars)” (11) to pokes at politics and media: “The news media calls this ‘spin’; we call it ‘prose performance’” (26).
Relying on this same method when it comes to physical space, Holcomb and Killingsworth are constantly using the second person, utilizing “you” and “us” throughout most of the text. This creates further familiarity in the reader-writer relationship. Casual and familiar footing create a bond between the reader, making the difficult-to-comprehend concepts easier to swallow, no matter the level of writing student.
The literary device is an idea often bashed into the head of all writers; many can remember the umpteenth time they had a professor explain the difference between a simile and a metaphor or the debate on why onomatopoeia didn’t sound like it’s meaning. Although Performing Prose does offer multiple fantastic chapters on these and much more, their use of analogy is what sticks out above the rest.
As every good textbook teaching technique should, plenty of examples are given, helping to make every idea and concept easier to understand. The beauty of Holcomb and Killingsworth’s analogies are the wide range of examples given; the choice are vast. When discussing style motives in Chapter 2, a wine geek website is used to describe how style changes according to the arena. Skip on over to Chapter 4, and voice is explained through the story of a high school student learning how to write. Chapter 6 likens tropes to the the pirouettes and plies of a ballerina, while Chapter 8 uses a sensual excerpt on weasels to describe the power of imagery.
By using examples and analogies from a huge variety of choices, the authors are able to find an idea for everyone. A supermarket of choices, there is bound to be an example that sticks. This broadens the audience and continues to make the book a relatable and practical tool, welcoming to all of those interested in learning about style.
The concept most masterfully used in Performing Prose is the idea of convention and deviation. One of the most useful chapters in the book, this section covers the importance of knowing when the follow the rules and when the break them. Tucked in here is writing advice gold as the importance of readability is stressed in five simple points, a secret weapon useful to all writers. What adds to the beauty of this section is how well the authors carefully tiptoe across that thin line between convention and deviation, creating a perfect blend of the two.
The idea of convention touches on following the basic rules of writing, which covers grammar, organization, cohesion, etc. This text does indeed follow these rules; it even has a grammar appendix covering sentence structure and comma rules. The chapter organization is clear, lending itself to an order that continually builds. Major section also include tables or bulleted lists at the end covering the main ideas, which is every lazy student’s favorite study trick. All in all, many of the classic “textbook” conventions are followed, by the book.
On the other hand, this is no ordinary writing guide. With a bold attempt to teach style in a new way, the authors are exploring poorly developed territory with interesting and engaging new ideas. The conversational tone shifts the frightening idea of style to something newly accessible, changing it from a mythical creature to a household pet every writer can obtain. Hiding between the classic textbook lines is a book brimming with clever deviations from the norm, setting a new standard for teaching an approach to developing style to the masses.
Having a successful writing style is no easy feat, let alone teaching this idea, but Holcomb and Killingsworth have managed to produce a wonderful tool in Performing Prose beneficial for inquiring minds. It would behoove every writer, with any sort of style, to run to Amazon and immerse themselves as soon as two-day shipping will allow.