Teaching Style to Freshmen: Why & How

Last week on Twitter, I shared a few excerpts from an assignment I had my freshman composition students do. In that in-class assignment, I had them rewrite sections of classic literature (once class got the opening to Moby Dick, the other the opening to A Tale of Two Cities) in the voice of another author or genre of their choice. So I got, for example, Bill Simmons’s take on Moby Dick and David Foster Wallace’s spin on “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” People on Twitter seemed interested in this assignment, which is part of a long, multi-part sequence on prose style that I have been developing in writing classes for years now. I thought I’d talk about why I teach prose style to freshman, and how I go about doing it. This post will probably not be interesting to people outside of a niche audience.

Why teach prose style to freshmen?

These impressions are necessarily anecdotal, but from my perspective it seems that style is not typically a major concern in introductory composition classes in the American college.  One point of view that I hear often, and which I understand, is the fear that freshmen are too young to really grasp prose style — that concentrating on  how you say what you say is a layer of complexity that’s unhelpful when you’re still figuring out what to say. Some people feel like style is best addressed in an advanced composition class. I get where they’re coming from, but I think that a) this is the kind of disjunction of form and function that just makes acquiring these skills more difficult in the future and b) it contributes to the kind of mystification that I’m specifically trying to fight when I teach prose.

Probably the more practical problem for many writing instructors is the time commitment, and here I feel it’s necessary to say that pedagogy of this kind is quite out of fashion. I don’t want to get sidetracked onto one of my discussions about (what I perceive to be) the problems with college writing pedagogy. I will simply say that, in recent years, there’s been a major push to bring multimodality into the composition classroom. That is, there’s pressure on instructors, and often institutional demand in terms of program policies, to bring non-alphabetic composition into introductory  writing classes. This can take the form of units on infographics, posters, podcasts, videos, levels of video games, image editing, web design, even coding in HTML or similar. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of these subjects generally, although when they should be taught and by who are a separate conversation. But if you’re looking for where the time went, for a lot of instructors, it’s probably there. It takes a long time and effort to teach a unit on visual rhetoric and Photoshop. Correspondingly, there’s been less time and attention given to what most people traditionally think of as the purview of college writing classes, and with that has come the perception that a focus on prose mechanics is old fashioned and not a smart career move for early career academics.

Finally, I think a lot of talented writing instructors feel unsure about prose style themselves. Style maintains a (wrongheaded) reputation as being somehow the product of natural  talent, as being unexplainable, and as being unteachable. That leaves a lot of instructors, I think, worried that they can’t teach it the same way they teach other aspects of writing. There’s so little attention to the topic in research, meanwhile, that the message often seems like this kind of work isn’t valuable or valued.

So why teach prose style? A few reasons. First, because style is an intrinsic aspect of prose and can’t be meaningfully disaggregated from content. An attitude that style is something that can be tacked on at a later date seems misguided to me. I certainly agree that developing a particular style takes time, and that having a personal and expressive style remains an advanced goal for college writers. Still, there’s no time like the present to demonstrate to students what style is and how it works. Second, style is an essential element of making students care about writing; it’s the site of inspiration. If students are going to learn to love to write (and such a love can be of immense value no matter what their academic field or eventual profession), then style has to be part of our pedagogy. How you write what you write is where writing  becomes intimate, meaningful, and fun. Too often, collegiate prose is taught in a way that ignores style, or even worse, that accepts the strangling nostrums of Strunk & White, “why is there personality in this thing, eliminate it immediately” orthodoxy. That’s a mistake.

In my own experience, broad generalizations about which kinds of college students like to write are never true. I’ve had students of all kinds who loved to write and of all kinds who thought it was a chore. But the students who have loved it have been, without exception, those who felt that their writing was a system of self-expression, a way to express themselves not only in what they were saying but in how they were saying it.

How to do it?

My fundamental learning goal in teaching style is this: to demystify prose style. Very often, students coming to a formal consideration of prose style with a sense that prose style is a pure “feel” thing, that they know it when they see it but can’t put their finger on it. That’s romantic, but it stands in the way of their adopting prose style themselves. My intent is to demonstrate to them that style emerges from the text itself, that we can observe style the way we do any other textual feature, and that we can in type write with our own style by becoming more attuned to how great stylists write.

To that end, I teach a three part assignment sequence. First, students write a brief analysis of a writer’s prose, identifying its salient features and the textual properties that makes it stand out. Second, students parody a writer’s style, typically rewriting an already written passage in a caricature of another writer’s style, or writing their own narrative in that style. Finally, students write their own text, perhaps a narrative, review, or editorial, in highly stylized prose, working to inflect their own writing with some of the features they’ve recently identified in that of others. Assignment sheets for this sequence can be found in my Teaching Portfolio.

Typically, I begin the unit with a discussion of style as an abstract concept, of style in general. This often means discussing style in clothing and personal appearance first, which is a useful way to begin the discussion. Every class discussion is different, but I try to highlight a few points about style: that style is chosen (we don’t say that someone’s style is to be short or to have a particular skin color); that style is expressive, that it says something about us as individuals; that style is risky (you can be both praised for your style and mocked for it, sometimes at the same time); and that style is a matter of how one accepts or rejects conventions. All of these things are as true for your wardrobe as they are for your prose.

There’s no substitute for exploring style through looking at the work of stylists. Here, I’ve found, the best approach is to take a long walk through the style of many individual writers. This is, as you can imagine, a significant class time investment, but it really is essential. In early attempts at this unit, I figured that I could show students the individual elements of a few specific writers — sentence length, word choice, syntactic complexity, metaphors and references, spelling and mechanics “mistakes,” slang, profanity, imagery, symbolism, etc. — and then have them look for these things in writers they like personally. But I find that they need a lot more examples to really absorb these things. It’s very helpful if you can walk them through different writers, having them identify the (textual!) elements of their styles. I find that kind of repetition is necessary for them to really absorb why writers “feel” different in their expression.

Who you look at is up to you. I tend to mix both fiction and nonfiction writers, journalists and novelists, etc. I do tend to avoid translated work, just because it’s so hard to say where style ends and translation begins. Just make sure you introduce dramatically different styles, particularly at first, when students are still getting an handle on what style really means. I tend to use Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Alice Walker, Grantland Rice, Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Simmons, Iris Murdoch, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, Tao Lin…. I also discuss styles that are communal or contextual rather than individual. So not so much Dashiell Hammett specifically as detective noir style, a consideration of gothic writing as an entity, and a consideration of “texting style”/emoticons/emoji. One thing these authors and styles tend to share: there’s often a lot of parodies of them available.

Why a parody segment? Because parody is a wonderful way to explore style. Parody, after all, tends to rely heavily on exaggeration, on taking stylistic elements and blowing them up. (“Taking them to 11,” as I often put it in class.) That makes them stand out more and thus make them more explicit to inexperienced writers. I stress in class that parody doesn’t have to be harsh or critical, though it often is. Sometimes parody is very loving. But what makes a successful parody work lies in how well the parodist has absorbed the consistent elements of a given writer’s style, and so a parody that’s accurate (and funny) is one which has demystified style in exactly the way I want for my students. Naturally, I go through a lot of parodies in class with the students, too. There’s tons of sharp ones out there if you look around a bit.

Students will often rewrite favorite texts from history or literature, or they’ll write stories of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games in a famous writers style, or they’ll write about their own lives and experiences in a famous writer’s style. So I get the “Declaration of Independence” written in texting style, The Hunger Games as written by Shakespeare, Grantland Rice confronts his calculus final, Dr. Seuss goes to a frat party, and so on. It’s always a joy to see what they come up with. You do have to give them opportunity to practice first, though, by giving them texts to “translate” from one style into another, preferably in the computer lab.

The final section of the project is really wide open; the students can compose pretty much whatever they want for me, provided they’re exhibiting strong style in the piece. Note that I mean strong style, as in obvious and unmistakable, rather than good. I don’t want to judge them based on something that they’re writing with a deliberate eye to exaggeration, after all, although I’m sure to say so if I think it’s particularly strong. You may find that the wide-open nature of Part Three doesn’t work for you and choose instead to put additional constraints on the project.

A few other things:

  • Students need to be informed, firmly, that although we can certainly discuss the conventions of dialects like Black English Vernacular, these are not styles that are appropriate for students to write in. Be frank. They’ll get it.
  • Go in fear of the word “tone,” which students will latch onto. It’s true of course that prose can have an academic/casual/formal/comedic/conversational/sad etc. tone, but tone is such a wooly term that without care it’ll end up being used without specificity. So ask: what makes a style mournful? Confessional? Old fashioned? Vulgar? Be specific!
  • Be prepared to manage student anxiety in this assignment. It’s very natural for students to feel a great deal of trepidation, given that many of them will likely not have done anything like this in the past. A lot of your effort has to be devoted towards just getting them to go for it — encouraging them to stop worrying so much about their grades and to just try out their ideas.

I’m wrapping up this sequence in my three classes now, although usually I have this sequence earlier in the semester. I love to teach college students, and I’m afraid it’s unclear if I’ll get the opportunity to again after this semester. This is a nice way to wrap up the year, whether I’ll get to keep teaching or not.

Resources

I typically introduce Ernest Hemingway as an accessible writer with a very distinct style. While it’s true that I’m trying to develop prose style in students for the purposes of argumentative, expository, and other types of nonfiction writing, fiction writers are often very useful for discussing prose style. Hemingway is someone many of them have heard of, he has a very distinct voice, and he’s been the subject of many parodies. (He’s also a writer who is sometimes great and sometimes… not.) “Indian Camp” is good Hemingway, and indicative of his style, or perhaps of the public perception of his style. It’s moving and students grasp the style pretty quickly. Moving to the Miller parody, then, is natural, and you can really easily draw the connection between the original and the parody, and show them how a style that seems quite meaningful in one context becomes ridiculous in another. (The Miller book, The Satanic Nurses, is chock-full of great parodies that are really funny, if you’re into reading fiction.) Finally, the movie clip really shows the difference between a person in their writing and a person as a person; Midnight in Paris, after all, is both a portrayal of the limitations of our dream versions of the famous figures we admire, and a very loving portrayal of the romance of those dream versions. Students really dig this.

A nice resource from the NCTE on this type of assignment.

  • Tracer Bullet” comics from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

A great exploration of hardboiled detective fiction, and exactly the sort of transposition I often ask students to do.

It can be tricky for students to navigate the difference between genre conventions and style, given that these are often intimately linked. By putting these two great celebrity profiles in conversation with each other, students can see where one ends and the other begins. These are the same genre, and yet the effect of reading them could hardly be different, and the reason is style. This can be a really great opportunity to discuss self-referentiality, celebrity culture, and the confessional mode in writing. Note that the pieces reflect two different approaches to celebrity culture, which are a product of their respective eras: celebrity as the creation of intentional distance and celebrity through the impression of artificial familiarity, respectively. Students in particular love Zimmerman’s piece, and because it shrinks the distance between them and a celebrity (they are forever telling me that Zimmerman seems like a friend of theirs, or that they could be her), it also shrinks the distance between their writing and writing that is professionally published.

There are a lot of parodies that I use in this unit, and I leave it to you to find the ones that work best for you. This Colson Whitehead parody of James Wood, though, is probably my favorite. I will often read this with students in class without first having them read any Wood, and have them try and identify what Wood’s writing is like just from a parody. This is an exercise in back-to-front thinking that I find useful after we’ve introduced and discussed a concept for a good while.