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.