An A-level student writes to say that his class has been told by their tutor that if they want to be good writers they need to 'write with style' - but in the absence of a definition of what style is (and especially what good style is), he remains confused. 'After all,' he adds, 'everybody has a writing style, though I guess some are better than others.' So he asks: 'What do you think makes a good writing style? And which writers are the best stylists?'
There are hundreds of definitions and characterizations of style. I collected a few dozen for a book of language quotations a few years ago (Words on Words, chapter 47). They range from such views as Samuel Wesley's 'Style is the dress of thought', Flaubert's 'Style is life!', and Gibbon's 'Style is the image of character' to the more down-to-earth views of Emerson ('Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are') and Oscar Wilde ('there is no such thing as style; there are merely styles, that is all'). Matthew Arnold said: 'People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.'
I devote a chapter (49) to style in my How Language Works, so I won't repeat that here. But the essential point about style, to my mind, is that it is a personal selection (conscious or unconscious) from everything that is possible in a language. It is my choice, as opposed to yours, of the options available in sounds, spellings, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, and so on. I choose the linguistic guise in which I want to appear. You do the same.
'Options available' is important. If there are no options, then there is no possibility of a stylistic choice. Spelling, for instance, allows us very few options in standard English, so it isn't a feature of most people's style. Punctuation is a bit more flexible. Grammar and vocabulary offer us most choices of all.
Why we make the choices we do is often beyond reason. For instance, I never use the word whilst, and always use while instead. Why? I have no idea. I don't object to other people using whilst, and can appreciate a style in which it is used. But I don't like using it myself. What caused this curious dislike I do not know. I may have been taught it, copied it, read it, who knows? All I know now is that it is a feature of my style - one of thousands of linguistic likes and dislikes which I have accumulated over the years. I have done a fair bit of analysis of my own style, and I know I have preferences for certain types of sentence, sentence lengths, sentence constructions, and so on. And I also know that not everyone shares my preferences. For instance, analyse these blogs and you will find lots of sentences beginning with And or But. I like the rhetorical contrasts conveyed in this way. So did Shakespeare. But some prescriptive writers hate sentences that begin with conjunctions and try to ban them.
I mention this because it's important to appreciate that our linguistic choices are judged by society. It's like any other aspect of behaviour. Can I wear anything I like? Up to a point. Society has rules, conventions, and expectations, and I have to follow them or take the consequences. The rules governing language are less obvious (because there are more of them) than those governing how we dress or eat; but they are there nonetheless. So the answer to the question 'what is a good style?' is the same as the answer to the question 'what is a good way to dress?' It is a balance between conforming to what is fashionable and being sufficiently distinctive to stand out from the crowd. And if you are criticised, or feel you're likely to be criticised, you have to decide whether to accept the criticism and change your behaviour or stick to your guns and be different. I think most people are pragmatic, and act both ways, depending on circumstances. I do, anyway.
Oscar Wilde's point is important: we don't have style, but styles. I have several styles, which relate to such variables as mood, audience, content, and circumstance. The style of this blog isn't like anything else I've written. When I wrote Making Sense of English Usage I consciously decided to try out a colloquial style - more colloquial than anything I'd ever used before (or since, for that matter). By Hook or By Crook, which came out last year, was another experiment, more of a stream-of-consciousness style. Whether I'll ever use it again will depend on whether it 'works' - that is, whether people like it, enjoy it, want more of it. If they do, fine. If they don't (and reviewers are always quick to tell you!), I'll drop it.
And in the same way as we copy others, when we dress, so we copy others' use of language. Another answer to the question 'what is a good style?' is: 'the style that the people you respect think is good'. What is felt to be 'good' will change from age to age, as the history of literature repeatedly demonstrates. So - as this is a student correspondent - if you are looking for a style to suit your personality, look around, and read, read, read. Read novels, short stories, newspaper articles, magazines, blogs... and make a note of what impresses you. Experiment with different ways of writing. And welcome the judgements of others willing to devote their time to reading what you write - for they can give you the clues you need as to whether you are being successful. Are you being clear, succinct, persuasive, consistent, interesting, repetitive, ambiguous...? You may think your text is fine - until someone else reads it. And the principle applies as much to emails as to essays.
You're never too old to benefit from feedback. I ask someone to read the manuscript of every book I write - more than one, if I can persuade people to give me the time - and I always benefit from the reactions. In fact, the only time I've never given my stuff to someone else to read first is on this blog.