From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass: Prose Style and Texture

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 3 min read

Learn the difference between style and description as Margaret illustrates two different prose style extremes—baroque and plainsong.

Topics include: "Think About the Sound of Your Prose • Types of Prose Style • Baroque Writing • Plainsong Writing • Style vs. Description • Prose Style Assignment"


Preview of Prose Style and Texture

This is an excerpt from Margaret Atwood's MasterClass.

The units of language are words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, et cetera. But at the micro level, they are letters and sounds. And part of a texture is how those words sound.

I think it was Robert Graves who used to say that he had an exercise called "getting the geese out," which was going through his text and removing Ses that were making a hissing sound. That's why he said getting the geese out. And for that, it's very useful to read your text out loud to see how it sounds, because a text is a score for voice.

And if you're writing something that comes out sounding like simple Simon stuck a seashell on the seashore, there just may be too much of that S and "sh" kind of sound. The same goes for sounds like P if there's too much popping.

If there's too much of one letter, people will think you're doing it on purpose for a reason. So if there's too much what we call "onomatopoeia," words that sound like the thing they're describing-- Tennyson's line, the murmuring of innumerable bees. He does that on purpose to sound like bees. So if you're going to have repeated sounds, make sure you're doing it on purpose.

And similarly, if you're slipping into iambic pentameter, which people often do, you ought to be able to hear that. Are you intending it or not? So that's the basic thing about texture. How does it sound? How does it sound when you read it out loud?

So at the extremes, you could say that there are two kinds of style. One is plainsong, in which the sentences are fairly short. They don't have a lot of adjectives and adverbs. They're fairly blunt and straightforward.

The other you could call Baroque, in which the language is very ornamented. So it could have a lot of subordinate clauses. It can have a lot of adjectives and adverbs. It could have a kind of pile on of detail, a pile on of syllables. And most people are somewhere in between there.

Things got a lot more plainsong with the advent of writers like Hemingway and Graham Greene. But then they got more Baroque with the advent of writers like Angela Carter, who is very Baroque indeed.

There is no one good style. Some people have styles that they prefer. So it is a question of what you're using your language for, what sort of-- let us say, what sort of spell you're trying to cast or what kind of illusion you're trying to practice.

Let's do Baroque first. Charles Dickens is a very Baroque writer. He piles on the detail. He piles on the adjectives. He was very fond of the theater, so he likes to-- if it were theater, you would say he was hamming it up.

So what could be better than to start with "A Christmas Carol" and the description of Scrooge. "Oh, but he was a tight-fisted, hand at the grindstone Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire. Sacred and self-contained and solitary as an oyster....

Reviews for Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

This was my favorite class so far. I just loved her and her information she shared. I want to listen to it all again. - Darelyn M.

as a future author this class really helped. Margot is the best teacher I ill ever have she was the perfect one and I wish to meet her. thanks margot! - Antoinette H.

She gives valuable information about the subject matter. - Karen M.

Margaret Atwood is such a beautiful human being. Her presence is an island of calm in the roiling seas of the writing world. I hope to see you again Ms. Atwood, in part two. - Karen B.