Why is it that some books have you eagerly turning the pages after your bedtime and other books work like sleeping pills? Partly, it’s style. Why is William Faulkner revered by many English majors and Mad magazine by other people? Style. Is it everything?
“Style” is one of the elements of strong writing, akin to “voice,” but different. As Shelly Lowenkopf explains in The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, “Style is the physical fingerprint of the writer, demonstrated by such traits as length of sentence, cadence, length of paragraph, use of adjectives and adverbs,” and more.
Lowenkopf goes onto say, “The difference between style and voice has its origins in the author’s intent in writing the work; voice comes from an emotional and/or philosophical atmosphere and is a direct reflection of the author’s attitude. Style is more a mechanical function, relating to the way the author uses tense or where she places commas and other punctuation.”
Style is probably one of the elements your tenth-grade English teacher tried to bonk you on the head with, and no matter how many times you’ve read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, you may not feel as if you’ve found your “voice” (which your style reflects.)
Some people think style is inherent, as if writing ability were like blue or brown eyes. Rather, it is something you work at.
Style is not a mathematics table that can be learned through memorization. I do, however, have suggestions and ideas to help shape style and improve your writing. What follows are a few things about style.
1) You are writing to a real person or real people. My late mentor, Bob Lee (who co-wrote, with Jerome Lawrence, great plays such as Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame), always reminded me, “You have an audience. What is it that the audience is supposed to feel?”
In other words, writing prose to yourself is one thing, but if you are writing to or for other people, then knowing—or at least guessing at—how other people might react is important.
You learn this through experience. The more you write, the more feedback you get, whether it’s from your teachers (“vague; wordy”); your business correspondents (“I don’t understand what you mean by ‘general supply’”); or audiences seeing your play or screenplay (laughter, tears, applause, or lack thereof). As you edit—but not necessarily as you write—imagine your audience reacting to what you wrote. My friend E. Van Lowe, who used to write for many TV sitcoms including The Cosby Show, tells me as he’s writing his young adult novels (The Falling Angels Saga) that, “I know where my audience is going to laugh—I can see it. I know where they’ll be surprised. It’s fun writing this way.”
2) Match your style to the form. A personal essay in an application to a college should be different in style from a letter to your mother. A summation in a murder defense case should differ from a memo to your company’s president. Some people, however, don’t vary their styles much. (“Dear Son: I experienced what one might call self-satisfaction at your stalwart performance this Winter solstice when I attended your theatrical recital. Never have I encountered a more syncopated and coordinated dancing candy cane by a kindergartener....”)
People who are fond of big words seem to sprinkle them in everything they write. I’ve spoken to magazine editors who feel too many people write like academics—they use big words and a dry style, and “it’s boring,” they say.
Simply put, a chunk of the population can use this suggestion: “Loosen up.”
On the other hand, I had a recent freshman composition class that was too loose at first. Many of the writers were simply chatty, as if the only style they had was based on speech. Their writing reflected that. “Just cause we gotta be free is what this author is saying. Ya can’t trust the pigs. We gotta believe that. That’s what I think.” For them, I spent time on the structure of an essay, and moved them toward correct spelling and point of view. My goal wasn’t to erase personality—personality is what sings in all writing—but to have them show more control and consistency in their writing.
3) Be concise. The more I write, the more I consciously try for brevity, and the more I admire Hemingway’s ability to do so. In an article in The New Yorker, Joan Didion wrote that Hemingway “in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think.... This was a man to whom words mattered. He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them.”
To make something look simple, such as the opening four sentences to A Farewell to Arms, took concentration, effort, and rewriting.
Some people’s writing style comes off as dull, often because of too much meaningless detail. (“And on the fifth day of our vacation, we stopped first at an In-N-Out Burger where I had a Combo Number One and Mary ate a Combo Number Two...”) Cut out the dull. Try to see if a long paragraph can be written more succinctly. A Persian proverb puts brevity in perspective: “Epigrams succeed where epics fail.”
4) Read your work aloud to get a better sense of rhythm and style. This is especially helpful if you want a more loose or casual style. If you don’t struggle for air as you read your sentences, then they’re probably not too long.
In a fabulous writing book, Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin, which I use for my creative writing classes, the novelist Virginia Woolf is quoted. “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm,” Woolf wrote in a letter. “Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand, here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in mind, long before it makes words to fit it....”
Reading aloud will give you a better sense of the rhythm you have or don’t have. How you create that rhythm is another matter.
5) There is no bad first draft. As Virginia Woolf suggested, rhythm and style are partly mysterious. No matter how much I deconstruct the elements of writing, there will be a part I’ll never get to, what I call the phlogiston. In Shakespeare’s day, chemists theorized that something mysterious left burning logs and other organic things in combustion. They called this puzzling thing “phlogiston” (pronounced “flow-jist-on”). I use the word as the mysterious element that goes into creativity. You tend to get it, much like oxygen combines with elements in burning, when you write “organically,” which is to say when you are inspired and you write what’s in your gut without pausing to make sure you have all the other elements. Save your analysis for after you write a first draft.
I’m not dismissing analysis, because judging your own work is important. In fact, what separates good or great writers from mediocre ones is the ability to judge one’s own work. While your first draft may have the phlogiston, you may have jumped over points, sacrificing clarity, for instance, or you may have misspelled words or used poor grammar or rambled on when you could be more concise. You rewrite to polish your first draft.
6) Rewriting is a natural part of writing. You’d be surprised how many people feel “stupid” because they don’t write perfect first drafts. Hemingway didn’t write perfect first drafts. He spent revision after revision distilling his writing until it looked so simple, as if it flowed from him in one nonstop vision. Most writers, large and small, are the same. Rewriting is my favorite part of writing because I find and throw out the stupid stuff and replace it with something better (most of the time). I am able to concentrate on each sentence and paragraph. In a first draft, I don’t spend the time analyzing as I go. I allow myself to try new things—some of which may be dumb, others of which may be inspired.
7) Inspiration comes from perspiration. When I bring up inspiration, I don’t mean you should wait for mystery (“the muse”) to grab your soul and then run to your keyboard and write in a fevered pitch. That’s myth. That rarely happens.
Instead, you have to fool yourself into inspiration. If you’re writing a large piece, such as a book or script, then sit yourself down at the same desk or table at the same time each day. And write. Some people are morning people. Others are night people. Write during your best time of the day.
Sure the writing at first may suck, and you hate your words, but write anyway. Some people—most people—have to write junk before the good stuff comes. It’s cleaning out the carbon.
Soon your body gets used to the rhythm of writing each day. You’ll see that you get to the good stuff faster and faster, because, simply, this is your time to write.
The same can be said for shorter works and letters. Just sit down and write it. There is no bad first draft. Just do it, and then rewrite.
8) Read. Writers need to read other writers. You cannot work in a vacuum. Allow yourself to learn by reading material other than your own. If you’re creating a Web page, then read a lot of other Web pages. Figure out why you like some compared to others. Try out a style if you like it. If you’re writing short stories, then read short stories from a variety of writers. Don’t feel guilty if you’re reading some great master and you don’t like the writing. (Personally, Faulkner puts me to sleep.) Read the things that hold your interest.
Want to treat yourself to something special? Take a literature course at the local college or high school extension program. In the college courses I teach, every so often I’ll get one or two people who earned their degrees long ago, but they’re back simply to enjoy reading and writing about literature again. They like to be assigned reading and writing. These older students tend to excel. I’m biased: I think much about life can be found and learned in literature.
In sum, the more you write and read, the more you’ll develop style. So go write and read.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.