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A Writer’s Style (Excerpt #4)—Launch Week Festivities*

March 15, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 14, 2016

An excerpt from The Magic of Fictionfront-cover-image-only-2

from Chapter 16, “Refining Style”

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All writers have a style. That style may not be clear until a writer has written several manuscripts or many, many articles and short stories, but writers do have favorite sentence constructions, favorite words, even favorite punctuation choices.

A fiction writer’s style is revealed in the way he presents his story. It includes everything from the use of literary devices—alliteration, amplification, euphony, personification, and so forth—to the tone he uses for his narrators to the lengths of sentences and paragraphs.

All the dozens of choices a writer consciously or unconsciously makes regarding presentation are what give his stories a particular feel and sound. Even a distinctive look. The collected choices make the writer’s works recognizable.

The good thing about style is that you have one—you don’t have to worry over creating one for yourself.

What is tough, however, is knowing that you’ll likely want to refine your style over time and that you’ll need to make changes to style for particular stories or for certain characters. The hardest part of making changes may lie in determining how to accomplish those changes.

When you write, you make many style choices unconsciously, out of habit. You may personally think in similes, so your characters end up using them. You like short sentences, so many of your sentences are naturally short. Therefore you may have to consciously work at changing habits and usual choices in order to create different effects, to create a feel or rhythm different for one story or character.

Yet writers don’t necessarily recognize the components of their own style. To know your style, you’ve got to examine the elements that go into style and evaluate your writing relative to those elements.

To strengthen your writing, you don’t need to create a style out of nothing—you have to discover and refine the style you already possess. You have to put the distinctions of your style to work for genre and the types of stories you write.

Writers leave traces of themselves in their stories through the many choices they make. They leave their mark through style.

Once you’re aware of the possibilities for style and of your own style habits, you can consciously choose to change your patterns as you write and, more importantly, as you edit.

An analysis of your writing style probably shouldn’t take place when you’re actively writing, but it could happen when you edit. Or you may want to tackle an analysis between writing projects. If you’ve written for a long time or have a couple of novel manuscripts completed, you’ve got plenty of material to analyze. If you’re just starting out, you may want to wait until you’ve got more text to work with. But even if you’re a new writer, knowledge of the factors that constitute style will be helpful as you create, if only to spark awareness of style’s components and influences.

Exposure to style elements can give you an awareness of options you’ve never considered. An analysis of style elements may introduce you to the missing style ingredient you’ve been searching for.

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Read more about the writer’s style in The Magic of Fiction.

Join us all week—March 13 through March 17—for more excerpts and other Launch Week festivities to celebrate The Magic of Fiction.

* Comments in this article are eligible for the Prize Pack Giveaway. The single prize winner will be chosen randomly from comments made on eligible Launch Week articles. (#6)

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17 Responses to “A Writer’s Style (Excerpt #4)—Launch Week Festivities*”

  1. Kat says:

    Recognising your own style is very difficult. By reading other people’s works you can analyse the differences between it and your own. What is unique about how you express yourself? I think it’s a lot easier when you go through the second (and up!) round as you’re no longer concentrating so hard on what you’re putting down as much as how you’re putting it down.
    This will be a fantastic article to share with my clients, thanks Beth!

    • Kat, you’re so right that recognizing your own style is difficult. We often just write and it isn’t until a reader (or critique partner) points out something specific—either positive or negative—that we can see what we’ve done.

  2. I have also thought ‘recognising your own style is very difficult’. However this excerpt
    opens up the possibilities of using style elements to help recognize one’s style and to
    change it for what is needed. Again an encouraging excerpt.

  3. Anna says:

    Your excerpt on a writers style really made me think. It’s like a race horse running till he hits his stride. Style can be hard to detect even when you’ve read mutiple books by an author. However some styles blast through in the first paragrah. When you like a writers style it’s like sitting down with an old friend in a comphy chair…ahhhh
    Ty Anna

    • Kat says:

      It’s so rare to find a style that makes me feel that way. I do know one (prominent) author that has this kind of style but I can’t/won’t read her current set until she’s completed it.

      I just want to sink into the books.
      Being able to analyse what author styles you have an affinity with can really influence your own writing, I’ve noticed (though this isn’t always the case). It’s another good starting point for emerging writers trying to find their organic style.

    • Anna, some writers’ styles do jump out at you. The wife of a boss of mine, a writer herself, always knew when I’d written something. I don’t know what she saw in my style, but she’d lift up a piece of paper and ask, “Yours?”

      I’m sure that style has a lot to do with our love for certain authors. And I’m not only talking authors who wrote the classics but contemporary writers who ensnare us again and again. I admit that I read everything written by the writers I love.

  4. Joanne says:

    Style is the signature of the writer, and, yes, by following some of my favourite authors I think I could pick them anywhere. I find it can change if they write in different genres, but there is always something that screams that it is them.

    And refining those elements that are your signature is important. I used to put an allusion to a particular movie in every work I did. But I found that childish, so I removed them, but then I found I’m actually quite found of similes. Too found? I can’t step away from it, so that’s for my editor to decide.

    • I’ve found writers who love absolute phrases, others who, like you, Joanne, love similes, and others who write tersely, stopping abruptly fairly often. If the style elements work, that’s great. But I’m pretty sure that some stylings should be reduced—or emphasized—in some stories to bring out or highlight different story elements.

  5. Summer Ross says:

    I too have a hard time finding my own voice sometimes in the mist of writing my drafts. Sometimes I can read a sentence and know I hit it straight on, just somewhere in my writer brain it worked well. And other times I have no idea how a sentence turned out so…not my style. LOL
    Authors that I adore, often have a unique style to their writing, and as others have stated I could pick them out easily without knowing who the author is.

  6. I think I’ve discovered that I use a conversational tone in my writing. That’s especially true in the memoir I’m currently working on, but it believe it’s true of most of my writing unless it’s intended for a formal business release.

    Does our style need to change with the purpose?

    • Does it have to change? Not necessarily. Yet what works for one story or one type of story may not work for another. Still, a style is a style. It’s part of the writer. What the writer and editor can do in edits and rewrites is to find ways to enhance the style for a particular piece of writing.

  7. This discussion is causing me to remember the famous “Elements of Style”, the William Strunk version. It was required reading in High School. (I’m pretty old). The main thing I remember was to omit unnecessary words. I’m inspired to re-read it or find an updated version, but does that really have to do with one’s own style? Ummm….as an old writer but new to novel writing, you’re making me delve into that aspect and now I have nothing but questions as to what it is? Looking forward to buying your book and not only reading what you say about style, but analyzing your style.

  8. Steve Lowe says:

    I’m afraid I have to say that Strunk stunk :-) The entire retrograde message which he proselytized about ‘omitting unnecessary words’ (and he would no doubt have hated my use of the word ‘which’ in this sentence) seems to be at the root of all that’s bad and regrettable about modern ‘popular’ (as opposed to ‘literary’) fiction. I mean, his message seems to have been taken to the ridiculous conclusion that many modern novelists seem unable (or unwilling) to construct grammatical, punctuated or just plain understandable sentences. In fact, so much of modern ‘popular’ fiction seems to have modeled its writing style on the ‘text-speak’ which (there I go again, inserting another so-called ‘unnecessary word’ :-) illiterate teenagers use in order to gossip with each other on their mobile-phones! Where has the good grammar gone, or the proper punctuation? I just despair.

    And in Stephen Pinker’s recent book (I think it was: ‘The Sense of Style’) he reminds us that, so sparse was Strunk’s (& White’s?) message, that, in order to fill-out *his own lecture* to a reasonable length, he had to repeat his own mantra *three times*! I.E. he leaned on his lectern and repeated: “Omit unnecessary words; omit un-necessary words; omit unnecessary words.” ?!*# I mean, if that’s not breaking his *own* rules, then what is?! And what’s the point of his message, anyway? Quite apart from the question of good grammar and clear, legible writing, if there’s just a chance that your reader will understand your story that much better if you include a single extra word in explanation, then what price deleting it?

    I truly despair of the minds behind modern fiction publishing, and am convinced that it’s ever-more being targeted at the kind of illiterate teenagers who would otherwise be numbing their brains by playing ‘1st person shoot-’em-up’ computer games, and who expect (nay, demand) to see the same illiterate format once they graduate to reading a book for once in their lives.

    But then, I still enjoy reading good English…

    Steve

    • Phil Huston says:

      I think I stood on a chair an cheered last time. This time I will but I’ll add an aside. Even some of the better (look at all those extra words) popular modern fiction reads like a screenplay, Like “please pull me out of this book and make me a cop/doctor/vampire/cute witch/bad witch/manipulative tycoon or spy. That’s how it is. Someone recently bagged on Steinbeck’s flashbacks as “confusing.” I overhear the most inane phone conversations, people kill themselves using text-eze, and words such as “which.” which might clue you into something are superfluous because as my wife the PhD says “They are linear and literal and don’t ask them to think.” She is speaking to two generations of taught to test people who do not, nor do they desire to savor the flavor. Drive-through. So we write that way if we must. The passing of an Eco quality writer leaves one hole. I’m not qualified to step up. The passing of Elmore Leonard and Robert Parker leaves two more. However the latter sold a lot of books that toward the end of their careers read a lot like slick TV shows. Watch the Hallmark Channel, if you can. Someone is getting paid to write that *&^%. Creative fiction, the popular song and any number of other “artistic” endeavors are being commoditized because it all runs on money. Pruse Amazon, trek through WordPress. Typos and brilliance everywhere. What we should demand along with an educational system that provides literate and thinking readers is repositories that demand finished product.
      If we never read or listen to anything except what we like, what we are fed, we will forget what we enjoy and succumb to cultural inertia ourselves. And how bad does that suck? We should all read some junk, listen to some junk so that we appreciate quality when we find it. Don’t waste a lot of time on the junk, though. You can spot it early on.

      Thanks for the rant, Steve. Well told.

  9. Seilann says:

    I’ve been writing nearly fifteen years now and my style seems to evolve with every new project, even when I’m writing them simultaneously. For my newest, my narrator is extremely experiential. She uses lots of sentence fragments and progressive tense. When I began workshopping the first chapter, many in my group didn’t seem to like it. Do you think an agent or publisher would pass on the manuscript because of such a style?

  10. Janet says:

    I was told to write like I talk. I notice that I tell a story differently than I write it. Do you have any tips on the best ways to stay true to your style and make the words lyrical and flowing at the same time?

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