Style Or Substance?

Marty Coleman-Writing Lesson #7

Guest Blogger: Marty Coleman, The Napkin Dad

Have you ever been on a movie set? If you have, you know how fake the whole thing is. Beautiful buildings, looking solid in marble and brick, are in fact wood facades with painted-on brick and marble. Luscious landscaping with exotic plants— plastic and fake. Actresses in ornate costumes turn out to have old t-shirts and shorts on underneath, not the sexy lingerie the outer garment suggests.

And so it is with writing. All the stylistic hoops you jump through won’t be of value unless there is a real story underneath… something of substance that’s worth the reader spending their time and paying attention.

Substance first, then style. All the style in the world won’t overcome emptiness.

Which are you better at… substance or style? 

Think about your favorite books. Were you attracted more to the substance or the style?

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  3. Dennis Bergendorf says:

    My two favorite writers (and the two who have influenced me the most) are Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard. While he never shorts the substance, Leonard is a stylist, with prose that is often rich and nuanced.
    Connelly concentrates on substance. I’m not sure we ever learn what Harry Bosch looks like. But we’re right there with him as he solves murders while fighting his nemeses in the LAPD.
    I have tried to read Proulx’s The Shipping News, but after about 15 pages, I became bored and gave up.

  4. I think substance makes a book good; style makes it great. Style without substance is my pet peeve. Often high-brow literary prizes are awarded to books with stylish merit but lacking in substance. I’m all for innovative writing but there must be a strong, underlying story.

  5. DIXIE L says:

    Substance first, style second.
    Rachelle, love your new picture – I think you have substance & style!

  6. Colleen says:

    … why would an actress where a t-shirt under her costume? Where would she even have room for a t-shirt, in the costumes they’re put in these days? I don’t think the costume people would allow it.

    ANYWAY! I agree with what most people have been saying. Without style, the substance is harder to access. And even something with style but no substance can be enjoyable, light entertainment.

  7. Peter DeHaan says:

    I go for substance and then work style in during the editing phase.

    (I’m currently reading a novel with great substance, by the style is sometimes too much for me. I feel like the author is trying so hard to be clever that she sometimes becomes confusing.)

  8. Imbra says:

    I’m far better at style than substance. Sadly, style is enough to keep my work selling. Guess I’ll stay hollow.

  9. Brianna says:

    Substance. The best things don’t always come in the most beautiful packages.

  10. My first preference is for substance, though I will read for style. But if the substance doesn’t have meritable style, there’s a chance I won’t finish it.

  11. Josh C. says:

    I think style and substance have a symbiotic relationship. I can read a compelling story, but if it’s poorly written then it misses some punch and I don’t invest much into it. I can read a story filled with all the pretty prose I can stand, but if the entire story is about someone picking an apple off a tree and eating it, then I wonder what it is I’ve accomplished. If the apple eater sees half a worm in it at the end, I might feel a little better about it.

  12. Bret Draven says:

    I see a lot of substance abusers here!

  13. There are so many books out there that people love, but where the common sentiment is, “Author X isn’t the best writer in the world, but he/she can tell a heck of a story!” What happens is more important than how it is told. Well, for the most part. A good plot won’t cover weak writing. But it might be enough to overcome technically-correct-but-nothing-flashy writing.

    But a book that has both is much more likely to be loved!

  14. Janet says:

    When I read a book with style and no substance, I feel completely cheated. There has to be a compelling story and preferably thought-provoking content. I need to come away from a book feeling like I’ve learned something or that my beliefs have either been challenged or confirmed.

    Now and then I’ll read what I call “fluff books” just for the entertainment value. I usually come away from the exerience thinking, “I can write better than that.” So, it serves a purpose – that little ego boost that pushes me to keep working.

  15. Substance creates style. The innovators of style are the original thinkers.

  16. Rachelle Gardner says:

    Quoting Marty Coleman from above: “In other words, the style is what makes the substance sing, whisper, shout or growl. It’s what makes it come alive.”


  17. Megan B. says:

    I am assuming that what is meant here by ‘style’ is not simply ‘good writing.’ Good, solid writing need not call attention to itself. I think what is meant here by ‘style’ is writing that does call attention to itself. This is not automatically a bad thing, of course, but alone it cannot make up for lack of substance.

    And I think what is meant by ‘substance’ is not necessarily ‘poignant,’ but simply a story that is interesting.

  18. My favorite stories often lack great style. As long as I skipped over the adverbs in the Harry Potter series, I kept turning the pages, because the story had me hooked. However, when you find a book with both! Oh, what a joy. Peace like a River by Leif Enger comes to mind. It was a deep, beautiful story that took the mundane of daily life and turned it into poetic prose. Island of the World by Michael O’Brien was another artfully written book.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Of course, Harry Potter does have a style that many people like. (Obviously.) Just because the style doesn’t suit our tastes, it doesn’t mean there isn’t any!

  19. Substance is paramount. But, it is such an insult; such a lie to the substance, to have no style.

  20. Hello Everyone, Thanks for all the great insights into substance vs style.

    Even though I am the author of these guest posts on ‘writing lessons’ most of my work and life have been taken up as a visual artist.

    I recently had an exhibition of my photo-collages titled ‘Velveteen Women’. It had as it’s focus the scars, internal and external, that a woman gains as she goes through life. Seems like a very intense subject full of substance, right?

    BUT, when I was doing each and every collage my main focus was not about the substance, since the substance was already there in the raw photos I had taken, but it was about the formal elements, the style, of the piece. I was paying attention to the composition, color, balance, form, line, texture, pattern, contrast, shadows, highlights, volume, mass, etc. All of the formal elements of art.

    When I had gotten those right, THEN I knew I had an image that would allow the substance to come through with the greatest amount of force.

    In other words, the style is what makes the substance sing, whisper, shout or growl. It’s what makes it come alive.

  21. Joe Pote says:

    Where there is no substance, there is no need to write.

    Where there is no style, there will likely be no readers.

    It’s not a choice between the two. Good writing must have both.

    In reading this post, I thought of poetry. Good poetry moves me in a way that is difficult to even describe. Somehow, it multisensorily draws me into the moment that the poet is writing about, and leaves me feeling I’ve had an insightful glimpse from a new perpsective.

    However, I absolutely refuse to waste my time on poems that have no substance or no structure.

    To make it work, they must have both substance and style.

  22. CG Blake says:

    It is the rare writer who exhibits substance and style. Michael Chabon comes to mind. Then there are writers like Wally Lamb, who uses utilitarian prose but his work is filled with substance. In the end substance is what is remembered

  23. Great question today!

    First, though, I’m having a hard time with the movie set analogy. The actors and director see all that isn’t real, as do, I suppose, the editor and publication committee in the publishing world. But the moviegoer doesn’t. To me, it’s all real. I couldn’t care less if the beautiful girl is actually wearing shorts and a t-shirt under her ball gown. Same, I think, goes for books; I don’t care how much editing effort went into it, or how long committees had to discuss it. I’m only reading the story, expecting to be entertained.

    All that said, I’ve got to throw my chit into the “style” pot. Many of the most wonderful stories ever told are, if you think about it, really rather simple matters. What’s important is the way it’s told. Give me a well-told story about a wizard’s apprentice instead of a story lacking style about the wizard’s epic battle any day.

    Example: Consider a story about a man in his twilight years who goes every day to read stuff out of his notebook to his wife who can’t remember anything. Not quite the substance of an epic tale, I’d say. Yet it was beautifully told, and earned every accolade it received, and it is still one of my favorite movies to watch. Now, of course, I’m gonna wonder what t-shirt the wife is wearing under her dresses. 🙂

  24. This makes me think of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. This poem comes to mind whenever I bump up against something that feels false or over contrived. There’s one part in particular where, through allegory, Spenser describes everything as glossy and intensely beautiful. At a closer glance this part depicts hidden corruption and deceit.

    It also reminds me of some of the people I grew up around. I was raised in an affluent town where many folks worked really hard at portraying perfect (whatever that meant to them). Often I suspected great loneliness or emptiness in many of these people.

    Okay, so I went a little deep on this answer.

    It’s simply my argument for why I need me some substance beneath style.
    ~ Wendy

  25. Jennifer M says:

    Substance is the ship, style is the wind, the sails and the wheel. One cannot succeed without the other, but in the wrong order, everything goes three sheets to the wind.

  26. Jessica Kent says:

    It’s an interesting question – a little bit of a loaded one! – because you can have the most poignant story, but if it is poorly or flatly written, then who cares? At the same time, being a stylist for stylist’s sake could turn into a work that’s just pretentiously artsy.

    Personally, I want to read a book that is stylistically interesting. The author has to have something to say, sure, but the way words are utilized, manipulated for narrative, and crafted is what really draws my interest. I’m thinking of Susan Minot’s Evening, for one: Language and style are used to create the non-linear, fluid memories of a dying woman. Style is what I look for and grasp on to when I want to read a book, and I think it’s become an increasingly undervalued talent in modern writers.

  27. Otin says:

    I think it really takes balance. Substance is very important, but there has to be a little bit of style to make it work. Two movies could have the same exact plot but the one directed by Spielberg will more than likely be better than the one directed by Joe Schmo.

  28. I’m into substance. A book with great substance but mediocre style can be an enjoyable and informative read. A book with style but no substance dazzles me for a few pages until, but by the time I’m done, I wish I had used it for kindling.

    I’m better with substance than style, possibly due to my ADHD, which tires quickly of fluff. However, I would like to improve some aspects of my style. In particular, I am working on my ability to show rather than tell.

    My favorite books are those with great substance. “The Purpose Driven Church” has a very basic style, but man was it loaded with substance. “Paper Angels” had a great story line which kept me interested and wondering what would happen next. (Yes, Billy caught my attention here)

  29. I see this debate from two angles. Of course, I understand what Ms. Gardner is saying about substance trumping style. I completely agree, for the most part.

    But let’s look at the question another way. Let’s take two books: Book A and Book B. Book A is a grand piece of philosophy, a revelation of humanity. It’s that novel America has been striving to call “great”. Book A is just plain brilliant; it’s also dry like talc. As the reader learns the very secrets of life, her eyes begin to cross, and she finds herself really forcing her way through. Reading the brilliance has become a chore. She knows that, once she has finished Book A, she won’t be able to discuss it with her peers, because no one has the time to trudge through such an intimidating tome (nor would she recommend they do so).

    Now let’s look at Book B. Book B isn’t very long. It’s about—I dunno—a guy who paints houses. He doesn’t offer much in the way of insight, perhaps little glimpses here and there about the effect of color on the psyche, but nothing extraordinary. Yet, his journey his an absolute delight to witness, simply because the writer has composed with such wit and flourish that the story takes a back seat to the WAY the story is being told.

    To borrow a quote from Roger Ebert, “A good movie isn’t about what it’s about; it’s about HOW it’s about it.”

    I agree with Ms. Gardener, for my personal tastes; however, doesn’t Book B seem the easier sell?

    • marion says:

      Interesting Ebert quote.

      In a movie, much of the emotional punch is in the music. Plus cinematography, of course.

      In a book, I guess the style carries the emotion?

      (Try typing cinematography before caffeine!)

      • Jennifer M says:

        Yes, Ebert was right, but what if one could not hear the music? My mother-in-law is completely deaf, but she likes to go to movies and watch crime shows. I’ve had the opportunity to “write on my feet”, shall we say, because I had to interpret the emotions brought on by the very scary music to a person who’d never once heard music. Watching X-Files with a deaf person while trying not go thermal yet convey the fear brought on by the music was really quite fun! She got mored scared after my (almost)stellar signing job, and we agreed to never again watch X-Files alone in the house on a dark night! So, style after substance…with all the lights on.

      • In movies, I’d say style takes even more precedence, than with literature. Were someone to describe the story of “Reservoir Dogs” to me, I wouldn’t be too eager to see it; however, this is one of my favorite films of all time (certainly, my favorite Tarantino film).

        For this very reason I never read the backs of DVDs. Or books, for that matter. A simple trailer, or random page, will do just fine (yes, I prefer to read a random page, before purchasing a book—not the first page).

  30. To me, style means great voice and writing ability. So, unless a book has that, I won’t read far enough to discover the substance. I say, substance must come wrapped in a cloak of great style. (And substance is of very great importance to me.)

  31. marion says:

    Truth. Real-life dilemmas, convincing characters.

    First-person is wonderful for defining style. If you know your narrator, there’s your style. IMHO.

  32. Amanda says:

    One of my all-time favorite books to read is a case in point. I’m not a huge fan of its style, but the substance makes up for it ten-fold. I re-read it at least every few years, if not more often.

    I agree with what the others have said: Ideally, there is an important balance to be struck.

  33. Ditto. There is no style without substance. If there is substance, there will be style. It just is. 🙂

  34. Marie Cauley says:

    I agree with Julie. The two go hand in hand, and if you have a good story and original voice, both substance and style will be present. Substance is always my main focus, because without that you have nothing. Style can also be polished both as you write and afterward when you revise.

  35. I’m definitely more substance, so much so that I fear I totally lack the necessary style.

  36. Julie Daines says:

    I think if you have the substance, the style will flow from it. All style is better when founded in the substance of the story, when it is a natural part of the narrator’s voice, when it is born organically.

  37. Linda says:

    Thanks for the reminder.

  38. John Buss says:

    I’ve got a mile of style! Oh, that’s not such a good thing?

  39. Jeremy Myers says:

    Substance. Always substance.

    I guess the Jeremys agree!

  40. Jeremy says:

    I’m into substance. style fill just follow if the substance of the movie is great

    • Alan Kurland says:

      Substance definitely. Just look at 12 Angry Men, one room, a few props, no music, and fantastic acting.

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