What Makes a Good Prose Style?

Jonathan says that my prose style has become a lot better than it was last summer. The truth, however, is that it hasn’t. What changed is that I now write every day, which means that I start every writing session by rereading the entire document. This means that I have read my most recent article 26 times.

Of course, every time I read it, I change something in it. As a result, the style improves a little bit with every change.

Maybe a good writing style is just that: a very polished kind of writing that the author has spent a lot of time editing, rereading, and then editing some more. People will now tell me that this is self-evident but, for me, this is a huge discovery. I always thought that people who wrote well just sat down and produced beautiful prose as a matter of course. A lot of editing, however, meant that a person had a bad writing style.

It’s like that joke:

“So how is married life?”

“Great! I like everything about my wife, except for one thing.”

“What is that?”

“She is very dirty.”

“Really?”

“Yes! She showers twice a day, so she must be absolutely filthy.”

Culture-Specific Writing Styles

Blogger Steve, whose great blog you can find here,  made the following comment that I would like to address in more detail:

I read somewhere that different cultures have different styles of writing, and it had some diagrams, and one that I remember showed English culture as going straight to the point, but Spanish culture taking as long as possible to get to the point, and circling around it for a long time, and a lot of this also involved preference for the passive voice.

I have tended to think that beating around the bush is undesirable, and I agree with what you say about the passive voice. But I also wondered if that was just an Anglo-centric viewpoint, and was something I needed to become aware of, as others have implied that I need to become aware of my alleged white-centric viewpoint.

But then I think, you are more likely to have a Ukrainian-centric viewpoint than an Anglo one, and yet I agree with you about the passive voice, so perhaps it isn’t an example of cultural chauvinism.

For years, I preferred to write my research in Spanish and dreaded writing in English because precision and concision that are marks of a good writing style in English were completely alien to me. If Spanish allows for interminable, roundabout sentences, then Russian does so to even a greater degree. I can create a sentence with 15 dependent clauses that goes on for 20+ lines and uses a passive construction in every clause. I really dig writing this way, too, because it reflects my way of being so well. Learning to stop beating around the bush and just saying what I want to say was a long and painful process for me. It was very hard to get rid of all the verbal flourishes, all of the “It might be argued”, “One might be justified in venturing a suggestion”, “It should probably be mentioned”, “What seems to be in need of being pointed out in this situation”, etc.

When I first started writing in English, I thought it would be OK simply to transfer my very Russian writing style into English. I soon discovered that it was not acceptable, though. One of the reasons I started this blog was to learn to write in a way that would sound less Russian and would be more attractive to English-speaking readers. (I think this has been a very successful strategy and my writing has improved dramatically in the 2,5 years of blogging.)

Now, the question is: why are the writing styles in Russian and in English so different?

I believe that the vague, imprecise, never-really-coming-to-the-point, passive-voice writing style in Russian is a result of our painful and long history of political repression.

When I read Belinsky and Pisarev, my favorite XIXth-century Russian literary critics, I see a very beautiful, powerful writing style that is free of any trace of vagueness and imprecision. When Pisarev wants to say that Pushkin is an idiot, he does it without hiding behind any verbal flourishes. When Belinsky wants to say that women are downtrodden and abused in the Russian society, he does so in a crystal-clear and passionate way.

The roundaboutness and lack of precision gradually became the hallmarks of the Russian writing style as the twentieth century progressed. The Soviet censorship was so terrifying and careful that sneaking any marginally original insight by the censors required significant skill. Readers learned to decipher interminable sentences for any sign of mildly subversive reasoning. The art of writing simply, clearly and directly was lost because there was no use for it. Whether the knowledge of how to write in a less convoluted, passive style has any hope of being reborn in Russian-speaking countries will depend on how well the freedom of speech will be protected in our countries.