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Amber Paulen

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau

A Book on Style: Exercises in Style

But first, what is a writing style anyway? As I see it, a writing style is both different from voice and works with voice. Because while voice is something more-or-less consistent, style is something that can change piece by piece. A style is a result of choices the writer makes (or doesn’t make) while writing. It influences how the whole piece is read.

Let’s leave it to E.B. White Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. It is “the sound [the writer’s] words make on paper.”

But my favorite book on style is not Elements of Style by Strunk and White, but instead Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. Just flip through the pages and it becomes visually obvious how different styles can be. The idea of the book is this: Queneau repeats one situation (a man on a bus getting into an altercation; later in the afternoon, the same man being told to sew a button onto his coat) ninety-nine ways. The banality of the situation perhaps makes the style of each piece stand out more. Unlike the other style books out there, this one doesn’t tell you how to go about constructing a sentence, it just shows you that there are many ways of doing it.

And it’s great fun too. Considering that the same situation is repeated, I’ve never gotten bored. Instead, I’ve laughed at how the titles seem to be exactly descriptive of the style of the piece: in “Gastronomical” everything is referred to through food, in “Awkward” the narrator is, well, really awkward.

It’s the perfect book to take on the bus, to read in increments, to freshen up how you think about your writing if your feeling dull, to maybe even do the exercise yourself. Maybe not ninety-nine times—but do like Queneau, take a quite usual situation seen throughout the day and try writing it in a dozen distinct styles. It might just become addicting.


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