My cousin, Sheena, herself a writer, was talking to me recently about writing ‘style’ and I had to admit that it was a subject I had barely considered.

I have always found the written word easy to produce (and to assimilate) and I often prefer to communicate in writing rather than in a personal interview.   If what you’re going to say is  difficult or complex, you have time to consider it carefully and lay it out thoughtfully.   You cannot be interrupted during the process nor do you have to deal with the other person’s emotional responses.   They in their turn have time to think over their reaction and response.   And if the subject were a major or significant issue, you would of course in your written communication, offer to see them in person if they wished.

It would appear to anyone watching me that I sit down to my machine (or take up my notebook) and write immediately and at length with neither hesitation nor preparation.  This is not true.   I will probably have ‘written’ the piece several times in my head, reshaping it, deciding on the ending (which is much easier than the beginning), trying out and discarding phrases.   So when it comes to the actual writing, I’ve already ‘written’ several drafts.   At this stage, I rarely rewrite and what I put down largely stands.   I sometimes shuffle the sentences.   When the piece is completely written, I may check if certain things are accurate and whether my conclusion is fair.    Occasionally I pass the article in front of John.   He rarely alters more than a word or two and he has never said, don’t publish it;  if he did then probably I wouldn’t.  He never makes any comment on my writing style.

And yet writing style is as distinctive as walking, is it not?   We can identify the footstep of those we love out of thousands of steps, yet it would be very difficult to describe how we pick it out.   John’s step is fast, long and surprisingly light, yet that description which is the best I can give would in no way help others to recognise it.    Yet I can identify his coming from afar off, the sound of his step leaping out at me from the background cacophony, even when I am not listening for it.    No-one else’s step, not even those of his sons, sounds like it.

Nowadays in our communications, we’ve mostly lost the intimate give away of the actual handwriting from which conclusions about the personality, education, age, emotional state and physical well being of the writer can all be drawn.     (Mind you, erroneous conclusions can be reached as when the foolhardy Mrs Beck had her latest au pair’s (me!) handwriting analysed and was reassured to learn that she was capable, honest and reliable – which I hope was true – but was not informed that she was of an independent nature, not inclined to do what she was told, not easily impressed and deeply resentful of invasions of privacy, and not especially anxious to please.    I wonder if the analyst saw that and held her tongue, or whether she was just a charlatan and said what her client wished to hear?   Once Mrs Beck told me she had had my handwriting analysed, although I made no comment, our relationship was doomed.   This happened as we drove out of the airport.)

Yet even the typed word has a certain style.   Over the winter, Sheena sent me a long email while she was ill and had a high temperature.   Although her comments were perfectly lucid, they conveyed that fevered, glittering, restless, burning up element of a fever, and I became quite concerned about her.   (She is fine now.)

I would guess, if a writer thought too much about style, he or she would become stilted or over-worked.   Personally I find if you lose a piece of writing (the wretched computer can have its downside), you can never reproduce it quite so well again.   The original has its own freshness and style that can never be recaptured.

Although obviously it’s part of the tools of a writer to have an extensive vocabulary, I find it extremely irritating when people use an obscure or long word when a more common word would express the concept perfectly accurately.   The point of writing is to convey an idea;  to mount an argument;  to persuade to a point of view;  to point something out, and that should hopefully be done in such a way that the reader both grasps the point easily, and gets pleasure in the process.   It shouldn’t, ever, be about displaying how clever you are.   Writers have a lamentable tendency to this weakness;  some quite  distinguished writers suffering from this difficulty.   In my view, in the case of the late Ian Banks, it was forgivable;  in Ian McEwan it is (just about) tolerable; and in Jeanette Winterston it is unbearable, in part because she frequently uses the rare word incorrectly.

Speaking for myself (and this is regarded as a great fault by people advising you how to sell a written work), I don’t really think about the reader at all.   I assume he or she is educated and intelligent, and if interested in the subject will consider it and come to their own conclusion.   I am frequently surprised by other people’s reactions, and I never have the slightest idea which blogs will arouse alot of interest and which will not.

So now I think I’ve said all I have to say on this subject, and I’ll do what I invariably do, and which is also regarded as a grievous fault by certain people.   I’ll come to a conclusion.   (What’s the point in writing if you don’t come to a conclusion?)

Style is good if you have it, but its substance that counts.