No, I don’t mean writing stylishly, I mean writing style, as in Strunk & Whites, “The Elements of Style,”[1] or “The Chicago Manual of Style.”[2] Writers desperately need style manuals lest we commit mortal writing sins like this: “Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office “begging” for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”[3]

Style manuals or guides are indispensable for writers at every skill level. So are ethical standards. There are dozens of narrowly focused style manuals for genre and content: religious writers,[4] therapists,[5] lawyers,[6] idiots,[7] readers,[8] scholars,[9] creative nonfiction,[10] business,[11] and an ‘utterly correct guide to clarity and style.’[12] And then there is the best—Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style—The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing In The 21st Century.”[13] There are few ethical guides for writers.

Professor Pinker[14] is as articulate and thoughtful as any who ever set pen to paper. He understands the essence of writing and defines classic writing style as an “Antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.”[15] He reminds us that writing is an unnatural act and quotes Charles Darwin as proof of just how unnatural writing is. “Man has instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write. The spoken word is older than our species, and the instinct for language allows children to engage in articulate conversation years before they enter a schoolhouse. The written word is a recent invention that has left no trace in our genome and must be laboriously acquired throughout childhood and beyond.”[16]

From the 5,000-foot level in literature, writing style is the manner of expressing thought. To express our thoughts we use language characteristic of individuals, periods, schools of thought, ethnicities, and geographical constructs. As we write we use “styles” created deliberately to convey a specific mood or effect. Style is closely aligned with pathos, since its figures of speech are often employed to persuade through emotional appeals. Without pathos, what we write is ethically suspect because pathos is an appeal to emotion. Authors purposely evoke emotions to make readers “feel” the way we “want” them to feel. If we do that to incite violence, fraud, harm, pain, loss, ill-got gain, or evil we are writing unethically. Style is how we write. Ethics is the consequence of why we write. We should begin with style and end ethically.














[14] “Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language, cognition, and social relations, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of twelve books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, Enlightenment Now, and the forthcoming Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.”

[15] Steven Pinker, “The Sense of Style,” Penguin Books, 2014, Chapter 2, at p. 27.

[16] Ibid, at 22.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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