You can’t always get what you don’t want…

…or at least, it’s harder to do. What I’m talking about here is writing style. Everyone has one; style is one of the reasons we enjoy certain writers over others, or perhaps can’t stand some writers even if the story is good.

I believe that it’s important to be aware of what you want your style to be. That way, when you work at your writing practice, you know what you’re aiming for. Knowing what you want is a good first step to getting it. Style is probably not the first thing a writer thinks about – I know it wasn’t for me. I was barely aware of my style, or even that I had one, for years.

Perhaps it’s deceptive to speak of “a style” – I have several, depending on what I’m writing. My style in writing humour is very different from my style in writing young-adult fiction, and different again from my non-fiction and periodical-writing style. My bet is that if you write different genres, or for different purposes, you, too, have several styles.

When it dawned on me that I had a style, I began to look at it, to see what I liked and didn’t like about it, and how I could make it something that best served my purposes. Part of the reason I had to learn to do this was because I wrote flash fiction, specifically fifty-five-word-long stories. When your work is that compressed, the challenge is to cram both a good story and a distinctive style into a tiny package.

As a result, I developed a style I think of as pared-down, with very few adverbs. This doesn’t mean that it’s dry; at least, I’m not hearing that from my readers. It’s possible to write poetically without wasting words. Read “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier if you want a great example.

What I relied on in flash to keep my word count down was the right word, the one that could do the job on its own, without a crew of adjectives or adverbs leaning on their shovels and taking up space. When I turned to writing longer forms, that habit of looking for the right word served me well. Yes, in a novel you have thousands of words to tell a story, not just fifty-five, but we’ve all suffered through – or skimmed through – passages of what my mother used to call “nothing in five thousand well-chosen words”.

My style, of course, is only my style. Yours may be word-richer, more leisurely, and perfectly suit the stories you want to tell in the way that you want to tell them. The point is to think about it, see what you have, decide where you want it to go and why, and make the changes that create your own distinctive style. It’s work, yes. It’s taken me years, and I’m sure I’m not done yet. The good news is that you can get what you want. You just have to know what that is.

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3 Responses to You can’t always get what you don’t want…

  1. Father Steve says:

    The problem (for me) with attempting to concentrate on my own writing style is that it may be highly evident to readers but tends to be invisible to me. I know I have one. People will read something in which I am not identified as the author and immediately respond “I knew you wrote that; it is SO in your style.” My own (meagre) success in doing anything about my own writing style results from the insights of readers who are kind enough to point it out. I think it rather like a psychoanalyst who is able to spot the wrinkles in other people’s brains but not in her own or the pastor who is able to identify and respond to the spiritual needs of a parishioner while remaining blithely unaware of his own.

  2. It’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what a person’s ‘writing style’ is, let alone one’s own style. It was recently pointed out that my style was very similar to a fellow wordsmith’s. She said her hubby thought some of my work was written by her. This makes sense, because we have similar ideas about writing. I guess that’s why we’re in the same writers group, but I hadn’t really thought about it before she mentioned it. 🙂

  3. ecreith says:

    Interesting observations, both of them. I’ve never had any trouble – once I started thinking about it – in looking at my own style. My friend Angie often says something like “add some Creithiness to it”.
    Terry Pratchett refers to witches having “third thoughts”, the thoughts that stand outside ans watch the other thoughts thinking. That may be what’s happening!

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