The Rationale of the Course

Learning to write in a style is learning an activity—like playing the violin, sprinting, pole-vaulting, sparring, riding a horse. This course and the book that grew out of it teach an activity, not a content. Students consider the concept of style and learn to notice style, to recognize styles, and to analyze styles. Analyzing them makes it much easier to acquire them.

A style consists of a conceptual stand on some basic intellectual questions that are the elements of style. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit its conceptual stand.

We select one style, classic style, for daily practice. Classic style is a general style, suitable for presenting anything, accessible to anyone who wishes to learn it. Although there are many distinguished classic writers who work in English, and although workaday classic style is widely used in journalism, advertising, and instruction in English, classic style is not a routine style in the English-speaking world and is almost never taught in its schools. This unfamiliarity with writing in classic style actually makes it easier for the student to recognize that classic style is a style, to detect the classic stand, and to practice classic style without sliding into intuitive and unconscious but poorly developed or incoherent former versions of it. Since classic style has thrived in English and appears in every field and situation, regardless of content, students notice instantly that the activity they are trying to learn is widely practiced. They recognize its products in literature, manuals, guide books, news reports, book reviews, personal letters, statements of purpose, nearly anywhere they care to look, provided they know how to look.

The status of classic style in the French-speaking world as a routine, automatic, culturally privileged style, taught in the schools, deliberately acquired, associated with the greatest French writers, helps American students see that the ease with which they fall into a style is largely a matter of their cultural biography, and that the unconscious styles they have acquired, which seem to them inseparable from their identity, are stands that can be exchanged. A style is like a coat one can put on and take off. One coat can be exchanged for another. If the student had been born in France and had attended certain French schools, he or she would have come in adulthood to regard classic style as a standard style, in fact the style that sets the standard.

Classic style is also an incomparably effective style for American students to learn, because classic style is associated in America with intelligence and distinction, even though classic writing does not draw attention to itself or appear to be trying to promote the writer. Having learned to inhabit the classic stand and to write or speak from it gives the student an invaluable instrument for dealing with any moment that calls for self-presentation or persuasion, because classic style in America is taken as a mark of the superiority of the writer. The ethos carried by classic style gives an implicit but powerful picture of the writer which often accomplishes all by itself the task the student faces. The writer confronted with the law school application, the blank “Statement of Purpose,” the application to graduate school, the job interview, the brief interval in which she may be allowed to pitch whatever it is she has to pitch, has a great advantage over competitors if she can assume the classic stand and speak from it.

Classic style is elastic over personalities, allowing the student to develop an individual style that is none the less classic for being individual. La Rochefoucauld, Thomas Jefferson, A. J. Liebling, and the authors of the Audubon Guide to North American Birds are all distinct and well-formed individuals, but they are all prototypical classic stylists.

Classic style offers the student exceptional pleasure since it is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader – a grade, a letter of recommendation, a contract. The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate. The writer’s security as a thinker and a writer is not at issue. As students learn to write in classic style, their adoption of the classic stand becomes, by degrees and in pulses, more and more thorough. The assumed scene of classic style displaces ever more effectively the real scene. Many of them forget, for long stretches, that they are enrolled in a class, writing to a teacher, or vulnerable to grades. The student is sprung, if only temporarily, from the undergraduate nightmare of being treated like an adolescent, pushed into intellectual fraud, and required to pretend that the fraud is educational. Adopting the classic stand can become addictive for undergraduate students because it reliably and enjoyably brings them good grades, gives them a social distinction, and springs them from the undergraduate intellectual ghetto.

Since the course teaches an activity, it defines the teacher in the role of the coach, the dance instructor, the music instructor, the sen-sei. The coach gives tips on performance, suggests training routines, helps the student see what is to be achieved. There are tricks, and we will present those tricks on this web site from time to time, but the tricks are secondary; the student must above all be dissuaded from imagining that a style can be learned by acquiring a bag of tricks, especially surface tricks. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit the intellectual stand of the style; surface features to some degree follow a stand, but in ways that differ across classic stylists. Little local rules for doing this but not doing that are an impediment, not a help, to learning classic style. We use the trick of prohibiting students after the first few weeks from mentioning surface features in their stylistic analyses, and requiring them instead to begin an analysis by answering the questions on page 22 of the book. We maintain this proscription until the danger seems to have passed.

We tell students frankly that they are being asked to think about style in an unnatural way and to learn to write in a style that is foreign to them, and that we know, based on our experience in teaching this course, that they will be profoundly confused and uncomfortable for about a month. We do not yet know of a way to speed up this period. Students appear to do a great deal of conceptual work during this month, but not to flower until the fifth or sixth week. We tell students that the first month of work may be the most important—certainly it is indispensable—but that there is almost no point in grading anything they write during that month, because it will bear little relation to what they can do by the end of the class. We tell them that above all they must not approach the class by trying to understand it as fitting something they already know. They do not know what we are about to teach, or anything like it, and if they substitute something they do know for the activity of the course, it only means they will not learn. They are being asked to learn something new, and they must approach the course in that spirit—they are being asked to learn to walk on their hands, become a mime, fly. We tell them that the only way to learn an activity is by doing it routinely, to think about it all the time, to practice it as part of their daily intellectual equipment, and that if they try to learn classic style or the analysis of style by turning on their “style module” for an hour or two the night before an assignment is due, not only will they fail completely to learn the activity, they may be worse writers at the end of the course than they were at the beginning. Scales must be practiced every day, fan kicks must be worked on every day, front kicks every day. To learn the activity, the student must do stylistic analysis as part of looking at the world, and try every day, a few times a day, to inhabit a style and write from it. At first, it is like learning to hold a violin bow—everything seems to go wrong. But after a while, it is like knowing how to hold a violin bow—it seems unnatural to hold it any other way.

We tell the student to obliterate completely the hope of learning to write by revising what they have written. To write in classic style, or any style, the writer must first inhabit the conceptual stand of the style, and then write from it. The beginning student is asked to write, to analyze the style of what she has written, and to notice ways in which it is unclassic, and then to lay it completely aside, to inhabit the classic stand, and to write something new. A passage already in a style can be improved by local revision, but it usually cannot be turned into another style by local revision. In the second half of the course, we in fact ask students to “revise” a piece to make it classic, but this kind of “revision” is actually more a “substitution.” Many courses in writing take local, textual revision as their central method. We, by contrast, do everything to encourage the student to abandon that method. For the first few weeks, it is best if the student never revises a thing she writes, but instead always tries to inhabit the style more fully before starting from scratch.

Defining the teacher in the role of the coach requires the teacher to perform spontaneously for the students the activity they are asked to learn. In sports, a coach can plead old age or infirmity, but there are no excuses for the teacher of this class. The class will often become, simply because students will insist on it, an impromptu workshop. The teacher must be able to pause and speak in classic style, often to replace something a student has offered, while pointing out the difference between the student’s prose and the teacher’s prose. The teacher will then turn the tables on the student, and give the student something to be jettisoned and replaced with a classic alternative. This is not difficult. With a little work, any competent teacher of writing can learn to do it.

How the Course Works