Five Ways to Cultivate Your Writing Style

How much should a writer think about writing style? All writers grapple with the concept every time we put pen to paper. Even the least self-conscious writer stares at the page or screen and wonders, How do I want to say this? We are always aware, on some level, that the choices we make in stringing words together reflect our identities.

As a reader, editor, and writer, I get to engage with writing style in many ways. When I’m reading, style is that magical discovery after I’ve been knocking around in a book for a few chapters and realize, “Oh, this is how this author says things—and I like it.” Style is the author’s unique voice: the words he or she chooses, the order in which those words are placed, a particular rhythm (or lack of it), characteristic types of imagery.

As an editor, part of my job is to identify a writer’s natural style and help him or her develop it. We make improvements, trim away bad habits, and cultivate strengths. I’m also on the alert for areas of a manuscript where an author’s style needs reining in or where the writing starts to sound like someone else.

But as a writer? I’ll be honest with you, I feel kind of lost when it comes to style. Maybe it’s because this is a time in my life when I’m experiencing self-doubt in many areas. Who am I? What do I want to say? And how do I want to say it? All of those questions come into play even if I’m just writing an email, drafting a blog post, or revising a short story.

The key to cultivating writing style is to not obsess over it. I know—isn’t that the worst advice? Writing style is like the sun: Never look directly at it unless there’s a solar eclipse (and in that case you must still don proper eyewear). A writer’s unique, memorable, and beautiful voice is something that develops over time, mostly while we are working on other writing skills. Practice these five principles to allow that natural process to unfold.

Make clarity your objective.

Language exists to facilitate clear communication. Writers who can’t communicate well using ordinary words and simple syntax have no business messing around with obscure words and convoluted sentences. This will just confuse their readers even more.

No writer is above grammar and conventions, which ensure that people who speak the same language can understand each other. So, get back to basics. If you feel you don’t have a good foundation in grammar, obtain a grammar text to help you understand how your language works. And seek to use mostly words that the average reader can understand.

It’s OK to play with long sentences, fancy words, and experimental forms of expression once you’ve laid a foundation of basics.

Read (preferably widely and out loud).

Reading exposes us to other writers’ styles. By reading widely, we develop an ear for various rhythms, vocabularies, and uses of punctuation. Try to read authors from around the world and different times in history. If you tend to read a particular genre, branch out into one or two others. Branch out into other forms, as well; if all you read is novels, maybe add in short stories or plays on the side. And please, I beg of you, explore poetry even if you think you hate it/don’t understand it/it’s boring. (The children’s and young adult sections of your library provide a rich trove of accessible poetry.)

Read out loud sometimes. Writing is merely a way of putting something auditory onto paper. Our habit of reading silently is akin to reading sheet music without ever hearing the actual sounds of musical notes. Yes, writing has wonderful visual qualities, but when we forget about its fundamentally auditory nature, our styles suffer. In fact, some authors have so much to offer in terms of auditory expressiveness that if you do not hear their words spoken, you are actually missing out on a major feature of their voices. If you do not like to read aloud, get someone to read to you, or listen to an audiobook.

Know what you want to say.

Sometimes, struggling to find your voice really means that you are trying to figure out what you want to say. Perhaps you have a thrilling short story idea, but with every word you type, it feels like pulling a tooth. The problem could be that you don’t know exactly what your words are supposed to convey. You might need to think through the action again and figure out exactly how your protagonist gets to work after her car breaks down in rush-hour traffic, rather than magicking her to the office. Or maybe you need to draw a map to help you visualize a setting that feels impossible to describe. If you are having a lot of trouble putting one word after the other, shift your focus from how to say it to what you are trying to say.

Explore your identity.

Who are you in addition to being a writer? Do you study astronomy, train dogs, travel? What’s your day job? Are you raising kids? Where do you live? Where did your ancestors come from? What was your childhood like? What colors catch your eye, what music do you listen to, what are your favorite memories and the ones you wish you could forget? Everything about who you are contributes to the formation of a characteristic voice. These features of yourself will affect your vocabulary, metaphors, dialogue, and descriptions.

Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty is an example of identity influencing style. She grew up in the storytelling Deep South, listening in on the flair and drama of adults conversing in regional idiom. Her own fiction was based in soliloquy, as she channeled the voices she had heard in childhood.

Test out your writing on other readers.

Letting other people read our works in progress and offer blunt feedback is a great way to discover weak spots in our style. What parts of our writing do people find confusing? What do they react to most strongly? What do they like? Do particular phrases stick in their memories? What lines do they quote afterward? What scenes do they highlight? What do they have questions about?

The goal is to find out how the average reader will respond to your work. Don’t discount a reader’s opinion just because they’ve never read Dickens or Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Dickens was writing to average Victorian readers, you know—don’t knock the average reader of your era.

Death by Past Perfect

Death by Past Perfect

I recently read a good short story, "Dry Whiskey" by David B. Silva (The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, ed. Ed McBain). The story builds unassumingly to a subtly powerful ending. However, the author struggles with the use of past perfect tense, enough so that it interferes with a smooth reading experience.

Past perfect tense is formed by combining the auxiliary verb had with a verb's past participle (had written, for example).

Paragraphs

Years ago, while reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, I came across the paragraph in chapter 17 that begins, “It was mid-morning when the man dropped him at a corner beside a little country hotel.” This is a perfect paragraph, I realized, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced the power and artistry of what William Strunk Jr. calls “a convenient unit” that “serves all forms of literary work” (The Elements of Style, rule 13).

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for perfect paragraphs. They are usually hiding around the corner, part of a series of ordinary paragraphs in a novel or essay, catching me by surprise with their concision, imagery, internal rhythm, completeness, and connection to the paragraphs before and after them.

Avoid “It Was” and “There Was” Constructions

I blissfully enjoyed The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. However, one of the first style quirks that jumped out at me was Rothfuss’s reliance on the constructions it was and there was (and it is, there were, etc.), as in “It was night again.” Out of the prologue and first twenty-one chapters, seven begin with It was. Rothfuss is a talented writer; he’s capable of chapter beginnings like this: “Chronicler walked. Yesterday he had limped, but today there was no part of his feet that didn’t hurt, so limping did no good.” The It was beginnings stick out like seven sore thumbs.

Horace on Editing

If you read anything aloud to Quintilius, he'd say "pray change that, and that". You would say you couldn't do better, though you'd tried two or three times, to no purpose. Then he'd tell you to scratch it out and put the badly turned lines back on the anvil. If you preferred defending your error to amending it, he wasted no more words or trouble on preventing you from loving yourself and your handiwork without competition. A wise and good man will censure flabby lines, reprehend harsh ones, put a black line with a stroke of the pen beside unpolished ones, prune pretentious ornaments, force you to shed light on obscurities, convict you of ambiguity, mark down what must be changed. . . . He won't say, "Why should I offend a friend in trifles?" These trifles lead to serious troubles, if once you are ridiculed and get a bad reception.

— Horace, Ars Poetica (trans. D. A. Russell)

Elisabeth Rosenthal and Ann Godoff

To Ann Godoff, my brilliant editor, who taught me how to turn a series of story ideas into a coherent and useful narrative for readers, as she patiently (and, thankfully, sometimes not so patiently) shepherded this project along. Her advice, though blunt ("I have done away with Part 1"—twenty-five thousand words) was spot-on.

— Elisabeth Rosenthal, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), acknowledgments

Rule 12 and Lady Audley's Secret

In The Elements of Style, rule 12, William Strunk Jr. writes, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it ... Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.” Strunk goes on to say that “design” can refer to something as loosely structured as a personal letter or rigidly organized as a sonnet. The point is to know what we are trying to communicate and choose the appropriate organizing principle so we can write it effectively.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to fiction.

Verbs

Know what a verb is? Let’s review anyway. A verb is a word that expresses action (example: expresses) or a state of being (example: is).

Of course, it's not always that simple. For example, which is the verb in the following sentence? Talking makes me tired. It would be easy to mistake the noun form of talk (talking) for a verb.

A friend who minored in linguistics and is an English professor taught me this clever trick for identifying verbs in a sentence. All you have to do is change the day on which the sentence happens, which forces the verb tense to change.

Yesterday, talking made me tired. Today, talking makes me tired. Tomorrow, talking will make me tired.

By changing whether the sentence happens in the past, present, or future, you make it impossible for the verb to hide. The word that changes form is the verb.

Cool, huh?

When I was in grade school, I learned Latin from a textbook that began by teaching verbs. Because Latin verbs contain information about the person who is doing or being, they can stand on their own as tiny sentences, thus making them ideal for beginner Latin exercises. For example, the first-person singular form of the Latin verb for love (amo) literally means I love; the English verb love means only love.

Amo. (Yay! It's a sentence!)  Love. (Sorry, that's just a word with a period after it.)

Amo. (Yay! It's a sentence!)

Love. (Sorry, that's just a word with a period after it.)

Ever since finding out that verbs can stand alone as powerful, one-word sentences, I have seen them as special. While we may learn nouns more easily than verbs when we are infants, I believe verbs are a more fundamental part of speech.

Verbs reflect a primary reality about humanity and the universe: everything is in motion. All things are acting or reacting, moving, pushing, jostling, flattening, growing, changing, shrinking, disappearing, being born. Stories are about this primary reality. Stories are about things that happen.

Good writing and good storytelling mean using verbs to express motion, not to fill in a static picture.

One way to choose expressive verbs is to prefer action verbs over state of being verbs. Compare these two sentences:

It was a hot day, with a high of 95.  She shaded her eyes against the sun's glare as she read the thermometer: 95 degrees.

It was a hot day, with a high of 95.

She shaded her eyes against the sun's glare as she read the thermometer: 95 degrees.

By searching around for some action verbs to write with, I came up with a more interesting sentence. As an editor, I’ve noticed that when writers are relying on state of being verbs, they usually haven’t clearly visualized their story.

That doesn’t mean we can’t ever use state of being verbs. I’ve used plenty of them throughout this blog entry. They balance the intensity of action verbs. Some ideas can only be communicated with state of being verbs.

But aim to use action verbs. Your style will automatically improve.

A Children's Biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Children's Biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett

Last fall I attended a children’s book festival and came away with Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter (who autographed my book) and Jean Shirley (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990). Children’s biographies about children’s authors are doubly intriguing, and it had been years since I had read a children’s biography.

I remember reading a children’s biography of Louisa May Alcott as a child. I was sorely disappointed by the black-and-white photographs, in which Louisa’s and her family’s faces were massive and severe, and by the facts of Louisa’s life, which was nothing so romantic (I thought at the time) as Jo March’s.

As I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was prepared for the unglamorous truth about her life and the pictures of her as a sturdy lady corseted up in bizarre Victorian ensembles. What I didn’t expect was the sheer joy of reading a biography written for middle-grade children.