Styles of Composition – Writing

This is a piece I’d written in 1991, with minor edits. I’m not sure what ‘categories’ I should post this in. When I read it today, it sounds too simplistic and I could be justifiably accused of over-simplification and generalization. However, I think it is still a humble and worthwhile exercise in the tenuous conceptual process of abstraction.

Styles of writing vary between two extremes.

Conceptual Style

At one end is writing that is succinct, heavy, and read and written slowly. Individual sentences in this style encompass ‘heavy’ content, complex concepts, and have an air of independence in relation to other sentences. Each sentence harbors a complete unit of information, and the writing is a conglomeration of such units. This entails the development of more and more complex and broader concepts built upon the units of information conveyed earlier, which in turn constitute concepts built upon the preceding ones.

In this style, the reader has to grasp the previous concepts before he can grasp the later ones. If a reader skips some content, the later content doesn’t make sense. For example, read Godel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid.

Since such writing deals essentially with the communication of the development of higher concepts, I call it as the style of writing on the conceptual level.

Perceptual Style

At the other end is writing that is elaborate, simple, and read and written rapidly. Individual sentences in this style encompass light observations, simple descriptions, and do not possess an entirety in them. Instead they ‘belong’ to the text and form an integral inseparable part of it.

This style of writing has a unique flow, which lends it favorably for rapid reading, since one can usually anticipate the subject of the following content. Even if a reader skips some content, he can usually “catch up” to what’s being said later.

Since this style deals essentially with the communication of perceptual matter through elaborate description of the perceptual experience of the writer, I call it as the style of writing on the perceptual level. For example, read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat.

Words are conceptual in nature, hence conveying perceptual matter through concepts is a reverse process. The extent to which reading such content stimulates the perceptual experience depends on the ability of the writer.

From another perspective, the conceptual style of writing involves the reader and writer on an intellectual plane, whereas the perceptual style of writing involves them on an empirical plane.

The style of writing is determined, among other things, by the intended audience, the subject matter, and the psychological state of the writer.

Intuitive senses, event narratives, and expressions of feelings dominate the perceptual style of writing, whereas conceptual style is dominated by expressions of thoughts and ideas. Hence perceptual style is the result of a rapid and quick process and engulfs the reader in its rhythmic flow, whereas conceptual style is the result of a conscious, carefully planned process, and needs the concentration of the reader’s cognitive faculties.

Another dimension is that conceptual style of writing involves left-brain activity; perceptual style of writing involves right-brain activity.

Superlative Style

Superlative writing is a harmonious synthesis of these two styles of writing. It involves the greatest effort on the part of the writer and the most rewarding experience on the part of the reader.

Here, the writer communicates complex concepts in such a fashion that the reader is presented with a complex chain of concepts along with the perceptual experiences that motivated the writer. Hence, the reader is led through the development of concepts in a manner as if he were himself developing them.

The result is that the writing develops wider and an evolving set of concepts yet has a unique flow and an enjoyable rhythm. The text is heavy, yet simple to grasp, the sentences are independent, yet they belong to the text. Complex concepts are communicated, yet the text can be read rapidly. Matter is rationally thought out and planned, yet the reader has an intuitive feel of what is to come.

It is this unison of the mind and heart of the writer and reader that makes such writing a rewarding experience for both. Isn’t the sense of fulfillment that prevails after such communication what every writer and reader seeks?

Ayn Rand offers a classic example of superlative writing in her non-fictional works. ‘The Romantic Manifesto’ is a masterpiece exemplifying how the superlative style of writing can be employed to communicate complex concepts. The reader experiences a pleasant journey through profound subjects dealing with the psychological and philosophical implications of Art.

Expanding the horizons of this analysis leads us to the application of this principle to music…(contd.)


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  1. Pingback: Superlative Style of Composition - In Action « An Unquiet Mind

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