Friday, August 28, 2009

Material versus Style in Writing

Many aspiring writers are faced with this dilemma: material or style? What comes first, what comes after? Is one greater than the other, is one subsumed by the other? Many writers have excellent material but bad style; many have excellent style but bad material. I can name a lot of writers from both these categories, but I won’t. After all, I don’t want to set off some minefields, do I?

Matter is something about finding subjects, studying characters, knowing their habits, their dress, their haunts, their feelings, their fears and their strengths. To get matter a writer has to experience, live the life of a writer, read a lot, translate thoughts into words. I had a colleague, a very good sub-editor, who was explaining to me how one of my short stories lacked style. He showed me something he wrote that had a lot of style, but then he couldn’t go any further.

“Why?” I wanted to know.

“I didn’t have enough material.”

Well, to state the obvious, he was blocked. So is an advertising copywriter I know, a very good one, who is good with captions and engaging body copy. I know his weakness. He is thoroughly locked mentally when it comes to material. He has an excellent style, but can’t write a shred of imagined conversation, nor create a fictional situation. He has style, but no material.

In India, there are several clever word crafters: ad agency copywriters, sub-editors who are especially good at style, as it’s something they do on a daily basis, i.e., gather the dough of ideas, knead them, flatten them, and cook them on the skillet of commercialism. They draw six-figure salaries, too. However, when it comes to material (I mean the sort of material Marquez compresses into his humungous novels) they are lost, they just don’t know how to proceed the narrative, well, I will use the egregious cliché, to the next level. Nah!

The matter of style and material isn’t easy to choose for a writer. Should I go for style, or should I go for material? If it’s too much of style then material suffers and if it’s too much material style suffers. A balance needs to be struck between style and matter. How?

Read a lot. It sounds very elementary, at first. But to write you have to read a lot. I mean you should always be reading a novel, a collection of poems, articles, book reviews, anything. Also read writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Vladimir Nabakov. I know, I know, these writers are on the opposite poles of the spectrum but see how style merges in their novels with material, the effortless mixing and merging of style with the effusion of material. What a wonderful mixture!

The easiest way to be inspired to write is to find a place that’s conducive to writing. We all have our places where we write. Stephen King writes in his book “On Writing” about having a place, any nook: the attic, the space below the stairs, the little alcove on the top of the stairs, the corner of the bedroom, where one is unlikely to be disturbed to write. It’s this area, lacking in noise, pollution, and duties of a diurnal nature, which every writer needs. How do we find it in a teeming city where space is at a premium? If you are a city slicker and want to be a writer too, go outside city limits, live in a satellite city, New Bombay for instance, where cheaper accommodation is available and there’s plenty of space. You can develop your style and material there.


ms said...

i discovered john masters when i was twelve. this did not stop me from reading all the westerns and ray bradbury, isaac asimov, james hadley chase (i am a big fan to this day!!) and agatha christie. my love for reading made me delve into every topic under the sun. the interest has lasted to this day. i never say that i read non-fiction and fiction, just books! you write well and if you have to sacrifice style for material, do so - the reader is always interested in what you have to say, not in how you say it!

Jai Joshi said...

I agree, reading constantly is very important, as is having a specific place to write. I'm always more disciplined about my writing when I'm in the same place every day, not being disturbed.

Your point about style and material got me thinking. There has to be a happy balance between the two, where the material meets the style in synchronicity to communicate the story in the best possible way to the reader. That's the challenge.


John said...


I used to be a hug James Hadley chase fan in school and college. Thanks for the comment and encouragement.

Jai, yes style and material has to fuse in a very synergistic manner, er, sorry for using this corporate cliche.