Writing Well II – In regards to style
By Duane Hewitt
Writers sometimes have the view that, when developing their style of writing, it gives them license to break all the rules of writing. This is not necessarily true – at least not for good writing. Such a carte blanche approach can lead to lack of clarity, poor form, and prose that becomes so muddled with an ineffectual style that the reader becomes exasperated and lost. The better approach is to remain in control of your writing regarding the rules while understanding what style is and how it is achieved. This article assumes the writer is sufficiently well-versed in the structure and components of writing.
What is style?
A very simple definition of style as it applies to writing might be, “a unique way of combining words.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “the unique way words are combined that is specific to a particular writer.”
Style is largely an abstract thing. For this reason there will not always be a defining yardstick that can be applied to either approve or disapprove of a writing style. One version of a sentence will hold a different magic than another. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” nails it better than, “The times were the best but these same times were also the worst…” Any number of considered versions might be correct, but that does not mean any other version will carry the weight of Charles Dickens’ powerful opening in A Tale of Two Cities.
Style is something that impacts the ear, much like the spoken word or music. Different styles convey different tones, which in turn influences the mood and reaction of the reader. Humor, anger, sarcasm, indifference, and more are conveyed through the choice and arrangement of words. Words can be manipulated to achieve style but the intended meaning must remain intact.
Style is often adapted to suit an audience or a purpose. A writer’s style is likely to change for different works. By example, a darkly told detective story in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe is sure to be dissimilar in style by the same writer who pens a comedy that pays homage to P.G. Wodehouse.
Style reflects the personality of the writer. This is where a writer might shine or disappoint. We all gravitate to certain personalities more so than others. Who, after all, is behind the pen that displays such wit and panache, or such a sour bite?
Points to consider:
Fluency: A reader should not find themselves stopped midstream because of style. In other words, don’t let style stand out so much that content and purpose are lost. The reader should not be so amazed or perplexed by style that they are unable to read fluently.
Wordiness: Excessive use of words happens all the time in different kinds of writing. This can be forgivable if content and meaning are communicated effectively. Just make sure that your long-winded prose is better than the more succinct versions that you surely considered.
Word use: Style should not contain wrong words or those that are used inappropriately, unless the writer is purposely doing so to evoke a reaction (such as humor or anger) or has some other particular motive in the writing.
Grammar: If you choose to break the rules of grammar, you should know what you’re doing and why. Take split infinitives, for example. Who among us has not heard that infamous split infinitive, “To boldly go…”? A split infinitive that places emphasis on the adverb can present us with a stylized version of wording that can be quite appealing. As with the opening to the original Star Trek series, it comes across effortlessly. It isn’t formal, but it works.
Mind your tone: You might be heavy-handed, light-hearted, or saucy – but just keep in mind that your readers are people. Your goal in achieving a unique style should take into account respect for the reader, which includes respect for their time and requirements. A writer does not want to lose readers on account of style. Ask yourself, did you help or hinder the reader with your writing style?
Accomplishing what you set out to achieve: This applies to all writing (presumably), so why should your ultra-stylish writing interfere with things like content and purpose? Stay on the straight and narrow of clarity and form before venturing into the no-man’s land of pretentious style.
Awareness – with attention to the “critiquing” eye: Good writers learn to be their own best editors. Learn to critique your own writing. If you make excuses for something that you want to attribute to style, then understand what you are doing and why you have chosen to do so. Style evolves with a discerning eye. A less critiquing approach is dubious at best. Is it style or is it a fluke?
In conclusion, development of a great writing style will undoubtedly make use of many techniques of good writing… varied sentence length, economy of words, figures of speech, and so on. In developing style, it might help to ask, “What is good writing?” The answer to this will differ between writers and readers as much as it will depend on the purposes of that writing… conveying information, entertainment, creating a call to action, and so on.
To develop your own style of writing, be true to your own voice – but make your aim quality. You may just discover that good style is uniquely interwoven with the fundamental purposes of good writing anyway.
Copyright 2016 Duane Hewitt. All rights reserved.