Creative Writing Style: Do You Have One?
We talk about certain novelists as having “style”, or say that we like "the style" of this author, but not that. But what does it actually mean to have writing style and is this something we can acquire, or foster in ourselves as writers? Or is it something that just happens?
IS STYLE DICTATED BY CONTENT?
Style has been defined as “the sound words make on paper.” In an attempt to simplify a complex subject, I’d say that this might be categorised as:
A logical style might be used to convey scientific or medical matters and a formal style by the legal profession. Slang, or informal language, might well be found in the Young Adult genre and a lyrical or expressive style in the Contemporary Women’s genre.
IS STYLE DEPENDENT ON AN INDIVIDUAL?
Obviously, a writer would adjust the manner in which they put ideas and sentences together for each of these categories. But would doing so erase all trace of individual style? Would John Grisham, for example, write an article on How To Write A Novel in the same way as Barbara Cartland?
If the answer to that is No – as I believe it would be – then is style peculiar to each individual writer, in the same way that eye colour or height are? In other words, is it something that is fixed? Something you can do nothing about?
CAN STYLE BE CULTURED?
The tendency for many beginning writers is to be ornate in style. Most teachers of creative writing would urge new novelists to simplify sentence construction. Purple prose – the excessive use of poetic and melodramatic language – will not serve you well when it comes to writing and publishing a book. If you are unsure about the difference between analogy and allegory, metaphor and simile, see my article: Writing In Style Requires Rewriting And Revision.
1. READ, ANALYSE AND COMPARE
One of the best ways to acquire a good writing style is to read, read, read. Analyse and compare the styles of authors whose work you admire, with those you detest. Does use metaphor to give not only a sense of place but also the behaviour of characters? Do you favour the long, lyrical phrasing of one writer above the short, simple sentences of another?
2. COPY . . .
Having found authors whose work you enjoy, a good exercise is to copy their work in your own hand. And I do mean in your own hand. Typing on a computer keyboard does not have the same effect. There is some mystical connection between hand-writing and brain which allows you to absorb what you are doing in a totally different fashion.
3 . . .AND CHANGE
This workout is not designed to help you to write in exactly the style of your favourite author. On the contrary! It is your own style you are trying to develop. So once you have carried out this exercise a few times, write out the same passage again, but change metaphor for simile; the sentence structure; the phrasing.
4. READ, ANALYSE AND COMPARE AGAIN
In the passage you’ve copied and changed, how does your style compare with that of the original author? What is the ratio of narrative to dialogue; plain prose to figurative language? Which do you feel more comfortable writing?
And this, really, is the crux of the matter. Because the whole point of this exercise is not to emulate someone else’s style, but to develop your own! And in many ways that means forgetting all the exercises and analysis, relaxing and simply writing. To use a gardening metaphor, once you’ve provided the right potting medium, warmth, light and feed, your seed-style must be permitted to grow, develop and flourish in its own way.
An Interview with Tom Wright
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