Writing Alternate Style

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Why is academic writing so cut and dried, so dull? Why can't it be more fun to read and write?


Contemporary nonfiction writing is not dull. At least, it doesn't have to be, as the pages of The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and even Sports Illustrated will attest. Read these and dozens of other current periodicals, and you'll see a variety of lively, entertaining, and informative prose styles. While the modern revolution in "creative nonfiction"—sometimes called "literary journalism"—has been slow to find its way from the popular periodicals to academic textbooks, professional journals, and student writing assignments, it is clearly on the way.

Current nonfiction writers commonly borrow stylistic and formal techniques from the fast-paced, visual narratives of film and television and from the innovative language of poetry, fiction, and drama. These creative influences encourage a multifaceted, multi-dimensional prose style to keep pace with the multifaceted and multi-dimensional world in which we live. In short, many current nonfiction prose writers find the traditions of continuity, order, consistency, and unity associated with conventional prose insufficient to convey the chaotic truths of the postmodern world. This chapter examines some of the writing strategies associated with alternative or experimental prose and suggests appropriate venues within the academic curriculum in which such strategies could be useful.


Lists can break up and augment prose texts in useful, credible, and surprising ways. Lists of names, words, and numbers add variety, speed, depth, and humor to texts. And lists are everywhere we look. In the following excerpt from "Marrying Absurd," * Joan Didion uses lists to illustrate that Las Vegas weddings are big business.

There are nineteen such wedding chapels in Las Vegas, intensely competitive, each offering better, faster, and, by implication, more sincere services than the next: Our Photos Best Anywhere, Your Wedding on a Phonograph Record, Candlelight with Your Ceremony, Honeymoon Accommodations, Free Transportation from Your Motel to Courthouse to Chapel and Return to Motel, Religious or Civil Ceremonies, Dressing Rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnesses Available, and Ample Parking.

Didion's list of competitive wedding services convinces us in a quick flash of words that she's observed carefully—she's not making this stuff up. While Joan does not specifically name it, we see some level of absurdity in the way this town promotes marriage.

Lists need not be clever so much as purposeful. That is, you include a list of names, items, quotations, and so on to show readers that you know your stuff. You've done your homework, read widely or observed carefully, taken good notes, and made sense of what you've found. Lists deepen a text by providing illustrations or examples. And they add credibility by saying, in effect, look at all this evidence that supports my point.

In her well-known "Bryn Mawr Commencement Address,"** Ursula K. LeGuin urges graduating women to speak with strong voices when they enter the world:

Now this is what I want: I want to hear your judgments. I am sick of the silence of women. I want to hear you speaking all the languages, offering your experience as your truth, as human truth, talking about working, about making, about unmaking, about eating, about cooking, about feeding, about taking in seed and giving out life, about killing, about feeling, about thinking; about what women do; about what men do; about war, about peace, about who presses the buttons and what buttons get pressed and whether pressing buttons is in the long run a fit occupation for human beings. There's a lot of things I want to hear you talk about.

Unlike Didion's list, which focuses close on a single subject, LeGuin's list opens things up, suggesting the many possibilities for speaking out on

**From Dancing at the Edge of the World, New York: Grove Atlantic Inc., 1986.

subjects that matter. Note that LeGuin's repetition of about before each topic on her list adds an easy-to-remember rhythm; after all, these words were written to be read aloud, and repetition helps readers listen and remember.

On the printed page, sometimes lists are presented simply as lists, not embedded in prose paragraphs. Such is the case when William Least Heat Moon overhears people describing the desert as full of "nothing" in Blue Highways: A Journey into America:*

Driving through miles of nothing, I decided to test the hypothesis and stopped somewhere in western Crockett County on the top of a broad mesa, just off Texas 29. . . . I made a list of nothing in particular:




mourning dove


enigma bird (heard not saw)


gray flies


blue bumblebee


two circling buzzards (not yet boys)


orange ants


black ants


orange-black ants (what's been going on?)


three species of spiders


opossum skull


jackrabbit (chewed on cactus)


deer (left scat)


coyote (left tracks)

Heat Moon's list continues through thirty items, ending this way:

28. earth

29. sky

30. wind (always)

Heat Moon's list continues through thirty items, ending this way:

28. earth

29. sky

30. wind (always)

Itemized lists such as this change the visual shape of prose and call extra attention to the items listed; in this case, Heat Moon is being mildly humorous by using a list to prove there is never nothing.

When Craig, a student in my advanced writing class, examined sexist stereotypes in children's toys, he made the following list of dolls on a single shelf at a local Woolworth's store:

To my left is a shelf of Barbie: Animal Lovin' Barbie, Wet 'n Wild Barbie, Barbie Feelin' Pretty Fashions, Barbie Special Expressions (Woolworth Special Limited Edition), Super Star Barbie Movietime Prop Shop, Step 'n Style Boutique, My

*New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 149-150.

First Barbie (Prettiest Princess Ever), Action Accents Barbie Sewing Machine, Barbie Cool Times Fashion, Barbie and the All-Stars, Style Magic Barbie, a Barbie Ferrari, and tucked away in a corner, slightly damaged and dusty, Super Star Ken.

This list simply documents by name the products on the toy shelf, actually adding a dimension of authenticity and believability to the writer's case that the Barbie image and influence on children is considerable.

Creating an extended list is a bold, even audacious move, breaking up prose sentences, surprising readers and therefore picking up their interest, engagement, involvement. The purposeful use of lists may make readers pause to note the change in the form of words on the page; at the same time, lists allow readers to pick up speed—reading lists is fast.

However, lists that are quick to read may not be quick to write; an effective list that appears to be written by free association may, in fact, have been laboriously constructed as the writer ransacked his memory or her thesaurus for words, then arranged and rearranged them to create the right sound or sense effect.


Writing prose snapshots is analogous to constructing and arranging a photo album composed of many separate visual images. Photo albums, when carefully assembled, tell stories with clear beginnings, middles, and endings, but with lots of white spaces between one picture and the next, with few transitions explaining how the photographer got from one scene to the next. In other words, while photo albums tell stories, they do so piecemeal, causing the viewer to fill in or imagine what happened between shots. You can also think of snapshots as individual slides in slide shows or as pictures in an exhibition—each piece of the work by the same maker, each with a different view, each by some logic connected, the whole forming a story.

Prose snapshots function the same way as visual snapshots, each connected to the other by white space and requiring leaps of logic and faith by the reader, with the whole making a self-explanatory story structure. You might imagine written snapshots as a series of complete and independent paragraphs, each a whole thought, without obvious connections or careful transitions to the paragraph before or after.

Sometimes individual snapshots are numbered to suggest deliberate connectedness; other times each is titled, to suggest an ability to stand alone, such as chapters within books. Sometimes they appear on a page as block paragraphs without transitions, making it necessary for active reader interpretation. As such, they are satisfying for fast readers. Each contains a small story unto itself, while the whole is a larger story, in part of the readers' making.

Margaret Atwood wrote snapshots to emphasize the dangers of men's bodies in the following passage from her essay "Alien Territory"*

The history of war is a history of killed bodies. That's what war is: bodies killing other bodies, bodies being killed.

Some of the killed bodies are those of women and children, as a side effect you might say. Fallout, shrapnel, napalm, rape and skewering, anti-personnel devices. But most of the killed bodies are men. So are most of those doing the killing.

Why do men want to kill the bodies of other men? Women don't want to kill the bodies of other women. By and large. As far as we know.

Here are some traditional reasons: Loot. Territory. Lust for power. Hormones. Adrenaline high. Rage. God. Flag. Honor. Righteous anger. Revenge. Oppression. Slavery. Starvation. Defense of one's life. Love; or, a desire to protect the men and women. From what? From the bodies of other men.

What men are most afraid of is not lions, not snakes, not the dark, not women. What men are most afraid of is the body of another man.

Men's bodies are the most dangerous things on earth.

Note how the white space between one snapshot and another gives readers breathing space, time out, time to digest one thought before supping at the next. The white space between snapshots actually exercises readers' imaginations as they participate in constructing some logic that makes the text make sense—the readers themselves must supply the connectives, construct the best meaning, which, nevertheless, will be very close to what skillful authors intend.

Aldo Leopold wrote snapshots in Sand County Almanac (1948), using the "topical" almanac form for essay purposes. Norman Mailer wrote snapshots in The Executioner's Song (1979), each a passage or impression from 16,000 pages of interview transcripts with convicted killer Gary Gilmore.Joan Didion wrote snapshots in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" from the book of the same name (1961). Annie Dillard wrote snapshots in "An Expedition to the Pole" (1982). Gloria Steinem wrote them to portray Marilyn Monroe as more person than sex goddess in Marilyn: Norma Jean

*From Good Bones and Simple Murders, New York: O.W Todd Ltd., 1992.

(1986). And Douglass Coupland wrote snapshots to portray postmodern confusion in Generation X (1991).

The following four-snapshot sample is taken from Sonya's eight-snapshot essay explaining her search for an undergraduate major:

1. What I care about is the environment, and what I want to do is teach younger children to care about it too. That's what brings me to college, and to this English class, writing about what I want to be when I grow up.

2. My first teaching was this past summer on the Caribbean Island of South Caicos. In the classroom one morning, I tried to teach local teenagers about the fragility of their island environment, but they did not seem to hear me or attend to my lesson, and I left class very frustrated. Later on, we went to the beach, and they taught me back my morning lessons, and I felt so much better. I thought then I wanted to be a teacher.

3. The School of Education scares me. A lady named Roberta and professor named Merton gave me a list of classes I would need in order to major in education. "Environmental education is not a real field, yet," the professor said. I realized it would take four years and many courses and still I wouldn't be studying the environment or be sure of ever teaching about it in public schools.

4. The School of Natural Resources excites me. Professor Erickson is my advisor, and in one afternoon, she helped me plan a major in "Terrestrial Ecology." I now know, for the first time, exactly what I'm doing in college. I need to study natural resources first, later on decide, whether I want to teach, work in the field or what.

These excerpts reveal telling scenes from her first-semester search for a major, revealing her basis for choosing one major over another without editorializing. By showing us snapshots of the highlights and skipping most of the complaining that characterized earlier drafts, we experience more directly her reasons for majoring in natural resources rather than in education.

Becky, a college senior, wrote a twenty-snapshot self-profile to convey a lot of information in a brief amount of space. Following are seven snapshots that examine the part of her that is highly religious:

• My mother grew up in Darien, Connecticut, a Presbyterian. When she was little, she gave the Children's Sermon at her church. My father grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, a Jew. When I went away to college, he gave me the Hebrew Bible he received at his Bar Mitzvah.

• The only similarity between my parents' families is freckles. They both have them, which means I get a double dose. Lucky me. My mother once told me that freckles are "angels kisses." Lucky me.

• I am a Protestant. I have attended First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado, for most of my life. When I was baptized, Reverend Allen said: "Becky is being baptized here today, brought by their believing mother and their unbelieving—but supportive—father."

• When I was little, I was terrified of the darkness. Sometimes, I would wake up in the night and scream. It was my mother who came in to comfort me, smoothing my hair, telling me to think of butterflies and angels.

• When I am in Vermont, I attend North Avenue Alliance Church. I chose it because it is big, like my church at home. The last two Sundays I have sung solos. The first time, I sang "Amazing Grace." The second time, I sang "El Shaddai," which is partly in Hebrew.

• I have always said my prayers before going to bed. Lying silently in the dark, talking to God. Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, I have been known to fall asleep while praying. Now I pray on my knees, it is harder to doze off that way.

• I wear a cross around my neck. It is nothing spectacular to look at, but I love it because I bought it at the Vatican. Even though I am not a Catholic, I am glad I bought it at the Pope's home town. Sometimes, when I sit in Hebrew class, I wonder if people wonder, "What religion is she, anyway?"

These shapshots portray Becky's mixed religious heritage, strong commitment to Protestantism, and current participation in Christian rituals. Each focuses on a single small event—a cross necklace, prayer, a church, and so on. Note how each actually tells a small story, complete with a beginning, middle, and punch line. At the same time, the cumulative effect of these seven snapshots reveals Becky's broad tolerance, education, and interest in a spirituality that goes well beyond separate religious creeds. This theme emerges as one experience is juxtaposed against another, past tense against present tense, without editorializing, allowing readers to supply the connective tissue by filling in the white spaces for themselves.

Snapshots allow busy writers to compose in chunks, in five- and ten-minute blocks between appointments, schedules, classes, or coffee breaks. And five or ten or twenty chunks—reconsidered, rearranged, revised— can tell substantial stories.

While it's fun to write fast, random, and loose, the real secret to a successful snapshot essay is putting prose pictures together in the right order—some right order—some pattern that, by the end, conveys your theme as surely as if you had written straight narration or exposition.Writ-ing snapshots on a computer is especially fun, since you can order and reorder indefinitely until you arrive at a satisfying arrangement. Composing snapshot essays on 3 X 5 cards also works as you can easily shuffle the cards to try out different arrangements. In either case, assemble and arrange the snapshots as you would arrange pictures in a photo album, playfully and seriously. Begin at the beginning, alternate themes, begin in media res, alternate time, begin with flashbacks, alternate voices, consider frames, alternate fonts, reinforce rhythms, experiment with openings and closings, type, and titles.


No matter what your form or style, sentences are your main units of composition, explaining the world in terms of subjects, actions, and objects, suggesting that the world operates causally: some force (a subject) does something (acts) that causes something else to happen (an object). English prose is built around complete and predictable sentences such as those in which this paragraph and most of this book are written. Sometimes, however, writers use sentences in less predictable, more playful ways, which we will explore here.

Fragment sentences suggest fragmented stories. Stories different from the stories told by conventional subject-verb-object sentences. Fragmented information. Fragment sentences, of course, are used judiciously in conventional writing—even academic writing, so long as the purpose is crystal clear and your fragment is not mistaken for fragmentary grammatical knowledge. However, creative nonfiction writers use fragments audaciously and sometimes with abandon to create the special effects they want.A flash of movement. A bit of a story. A frozen scene. Fragments force quick reading, ask for impressionistic understanding, suggest parts rather than wholes. Like snapshots, fragments invite strong reader participation to stitch together, to move toward clear meaning.

Fragment sentences suggest, too, that things are moving fast. Very fast. Hold on. Remember the snapshot passage from Margaret Atwood's "Alien Territory"? Note that she used fragments to emphasize the sharp dangers of men's bodies:

Some of the killed bodies are those of women and children, as a side effect you might say. Fallout, shrapnel, napalm, rape and skewering, anti-personnel devices. But most of the killed bodies are men. So are most of those doing the killing.

Why do men want to kill the bodies of other men? Women don't want to kill the bodies of other women. By and large. As far as we know.

Atwood's fragments make the reader notice sharply the brutal and jarring truths she is writing about; in this example, the lack of conventional connections between words mirrors the disconnectedness she sees in her subject: men, violence, and war. Notice, too, that some of her fragments illustrate another use of lists.

Write fragments so your reader knows they are not mistakes. Not ignorance. Not sloppiness or printer error or carelessness. Purposeful fragments can be powerful. Deliberate. Intentional. Careful. Functional. And brief.

Labyrinthine sentences tell stories differently from either conventional or fragment sentences. In fact, a labyrinthine sentence is quite the opposite of the fragment sentence because it seems never to end; it won't quit, and goes on and on, using all sorts of punctuational and grammatical tricks to create compound sentences (you know, two or more independent clauses joined by a comma and a conjunction such as and or but) and complex sentences (you know these, too; one independent clause with one or more dependent clauses) and is written to suggest, perhaps, that things are running together and are hard to separate—also to suggest the "stream of consciousness" of the human mind, where thoughts and impressions and feelings and images are run together without the easy separation into full sentences or paragraphs complete with topic sentences— the power (and sometimes confusion) of which you know if you have read James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner or Toni Morrison.

Or James Agee, who in the following passage imaginatively enters the thoughts of the people he is profiling in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,* the Depression-era Alabama tenant farmers:

But I am young; and I am young and strong and in good health; and I am young and pretty to look at; and I am too young to worry; and so am I for my mother is kind to me; and we run in the bright air like animals, and our bare feet like plants in the wholesome earth: the natural world is around us like a lake and a wide smile and we are growing: one by one we are becoming stronger, and one by one in the terrible emptiness and the leisure we shall burn and tremble and shake with lust, and one by one we shall loosen ourselves from this place, and shall be married, and it will be different from what we see, for we will be happy and love each other, and keep the house clean, and a good garden, and buy a cultivator, and use a high grade of fertilizer, and we will know how to do things right; it will be very different:) (?:)

*New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941, pp. 80-81.

Agee's long connected sentence creates the run-together, wishful, worried, desperate internal dream of his subjects in a way a conventional paragraph could not. Notice, too, that punctuation and grammar are conventional and correct—even in the end, where they are used in unexpected ways to suggest something of the confusion and uncertainty these people live with daily.

You may also write run-on or fused sentences—where punctuation does not function in expected ways the missing period before this sentences is an example of that. However, such writing more often suggests error and mistake than experiment so be careful. I use both fragments and labyrinthine sentences to create certain effects, since each conveys its information in an unmistakable way; but I never, deliberately, write run-on sentences, and when I encounter them as a reader, they make me suspicious.


Writers repeat words, phrases, or sentences for emphasis. They repeat to remind us to think hard about the word or phrase repeated; they repeat to ask us to attend and not take for granted. They repeat to suggest continuity of idea and theme. They repeat to hold paragraphs and essays together. And, sometimes, they repeat to create rhythms that are simply pleasing to the ear.

The following paragraph opens Ian Frazier's book-length study, The Great Plains*:

Away to the Great Plains of America, to that immense Western shortgrass prairie now mostly plowed under! Away to the still empty land beyond newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes! Away to the headwaters of the Missouri, now quelled by many impoundment dams, and to the headwaters of the Platte, and to the almost invisible headwaters of the slurped up Arkansas! Away to the land where TV used to set its most popular dramas, but not anymore! Away to the land beyond the hundredth meridian of longitude, where sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn't, where agriculture stops and does a double take! Away to the skies of the sparrow hawks sitting on telephone wires, thinking of mice and flaring their tail feathers suddenly, like a card trick! Away to the airshaft of the continent, where weather fronts from two hemispheres meet and the wind blows almost all the time! Away to the fields of wheat and milo and Sudan grass and flax and alfalfa and nothing! Away to parts of Montana and North Dakota and South Dakota and Wyoming and Nebraska and Kansas and Colorado and New Mexico and Oklahoma and Texas! Away to the high plains rolling in waves to the rising final chord of the Rocky Mountains!

'The Great Plains. Ian Frazier. New York: Farrar Strauss, Giroux, 1989, p. 1.

Frazier's singing chant invites us, in one sweeping passage, to think about the great plains as geography, biology, history, and culture. Along the way he uses fragments and lists and a plentitude of exclamation marks to invite readers to consider this arid and often overlooked part of America.


Good nonfiction writing usually (I'd like to say always but don't dare) expresses something of the writer's voice. But all writers are capable of speaking with more than one voice (how many more?), or maybe with a single voice that has a wide range, varied registers, multiple tones, and different pitches. No matter how you view it, writers project more than one voice from piece to piece of writing, and sometimes within the same piece.

In any given essay, writers may try to say two things at the same time; sometimes they want to say one thing that means two things; sometimes to express contradictions, paradoxes, or conundrums; sometimes to say one thing out loud and think another silently to themselves. (It's clear to me what I mean by this, but I'd better find some examples.)

Double voices in a text may be indicated by parentheses, the equivalent of an actor speaking an aside on the stage or in films, where the internal monologue of a character is revealed as voice-over or through printed subtitles while another action is happening on screen (I hate subtitles on small screen television sets—I can't see them). It can also be shown in text by changes in font or typeface: a switch to italics, boldface, or capital letters equals a switch in the writer's voice. Or the double voice may occur without distinguishing markers at all, or be indicated by simple paragraph breaks, as in the following selection from D.H. Lawrence in his critical essay on Herman Melville's Moby Dick from Studies in Classic American literature:


Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America.

Doom of what?

Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I which dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the greatness which is more than I am.

Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch, doomed. Himself doomed. The idealist, doomed. The spirit, doomed.

Here, Lawrence critiques Melville by carrying on a mock dialogue with himself, alternating his caricature of Melville's voice with his own whimsical acceptance of Melville's gloomy prophesy. Lawrence's essay seems written to provoke readers into reassessing their interpretations of literary classics, and so he provokes not only through the questions he raises but through his style as well. Note his poetic use of repetition and sentence fragments that contribute to his double-voice effect.


A collage is an artistic composition of various materials and objects pasted together in incongruous relationships for their symbolic or suggestive effect. Collages are more often associated with visual than verbal art, but, again, alternate-style writers borrow freely from other media. In some ways, my own journal has elements of a collage when I use it as a scrap-book, taping in photos or clippings wherever I find white space, thus creating sometimes strange juxtapositions. However, collage writing has been used to more deliberate effect in the novels of John Dos Passos—a technique since borrowed by both Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, in their New Journalistic essays. Dos Passos began his essay "The Death of James Dean"* with quotations taken from newspaper headlines:



James Dean is three years dead but the sinister adolescent still holds the headlines.

James Dean is three years dead; but when they file out of the close darkness and breathed out air of the second-run motion picture theatres where they've been seeing James Dean's old films they still line up;

the boys in the jackboots and the leather jackets, the boys in the skintight jeans, the boys in broad motorbike belts, before mirrors in the restroom to look at themselves and see James Dean;

Note, too, the unconventional prose lines in this essay, more like poetry than prose, as well as the repetition of the opening line.

Collage techniques can be used in similar ways in nonfiction essays to provide background for an essay to follow. Or an entire essay may be

*Esquire, December 1959.

A Caution about Alternate Style 197

crafted collage-style by the skillful juxtaposition of textual fragments— possibly with the addition of photos, newspaper clippings, or other two-dimensional items taped, photocopied, or scanned into the text. One of my students wrote a self-profile by inserting photocopies of quotations, photos, and posters throughout her paper, suggesting that who she was contained these outside as well as inside sources.


Wise writers will master both conventional and unconventional styles, using each as occasion and audience demand. Proficiency in one is a poor excuse for sloppiness or neglect of the other. Alternate-style techniques, used carefully and judiciously on selected writing tasks, are fun to write, and enjoyable to read. Overused, they become predictable, routine, and dull, losing the surprise and freshness that made them effective in the first place. Check with your instructor before handing in an unconventional paper in response to a conventional assignment.


1. Describe any experiences you have had reading or writing alternative-style texts.

2. For the next week, when writing in your journal, try different alternative-style techniques. Which are most effective for you and why?


1. Select one or more of the following techniques to compose your next essay: lists, snapshots, fragmented sentences, labyrinthine sentences, repetition, double voice, and collage.

2. Recast an essay previously written in one or more of the alternativestyle techniques above. Compare and contrast the effects created by each version.


1. Read the works of one of the authors listed in this chapter and write a review essay on the intersection of theme with style.

2. Write a conventional research paper in traditional academic style (see Section III); write an additional draft in alternate style.

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  • Rollo
    What are the different alternate style writings?
    9 years ago

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