Do Not Draw Attention to Yourself: Writing Style Basics

What is writing style? There is no easy way to define style, but simply put it is the way you put words together. If is not necessarily how big your vocabulary is, but what you do with the words you do know. Dr. Seuss has a distinct style, but look how simple the words are. Here’s an example from Horton Hears a Who:

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”

Or this from The Places You’ll Go:

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Dr. Seuss sounds like Dr. Seuss because of his style. He uses one-syllable words ninety-nine percent of the time, yet what he says is profound.

John Steinbeck serves as another example. Though he uses simple language in his novels, he creates complex characters in stories that have become a part of American classic literature. Steinbeck presents his narrative in a straightforward manner in East of Eden:

“I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible.”

How about this from The Winter of our Discontent:

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

Remember: writing style does not draw attention to itself. The reader wants to get lost in the story, but if the storyteller keeps popping up and saying, “Look how clever I am with my fancy words,” that escapism is lost. Style is something that comes over time with practice and reading.

The following tips, however, may speed up awareness of style in your own writing.

Word Choice

Pay attention to how word choice may affect the reader. A writer can use words as emotion conductors. Sometimes that emotion is favorable, sometimes it’s disdainful. Whatever the writer is trying to say, she can use words as tools to convey her attitude toward her subject matter.

Remember to consider not only a word’s denotation, but also its connotation.

  • Denotation: A word’s exact meaning. Just look up its definition in the dictionary.
  • Connotation: A word’s emotional overtones. “Home,” for example, suggest warmth and acceptance; “house” carries no such overtones. Compare other words like “thrifty” and “miserly.”

“Grey” means a mixture of black and white. That would be its denotation. When you think of the connotation of “grey”, what emotions come to mind? Gloomy? Sadness? Ambivalence?

Writers can use the connotation of a word to show how they feel about a subject. For example:

  • The slender model strutted down the catwalk.
  • The skinny model strutted down the catwalk.
  • The scrawny model strutted down the catwalk.

All of these sentences imply the model has little body fat on her. But which of these sentences shows a more favorable attitude toward the subject? The adjective “slender” has a more positive connotation than “skinny” or “scrawny.” Slender seems more sensual, sexy, whereas skinny seems to mock the model and scrawny seems downright demeaning.

Use the Active Voice

Let your subject act rather than be acted upon. Instead of saying

The birdhouse was built by Phil.

say

Phil built the birdhouse.

One way to filter out the passive voice is to look for to be verbs when you are rewriting. To be verbs are verbs like am, are, is, was, were, or will be.

Vary Sentence Length

The written word has rhythm. Whether it is poetry or a short story or an angry note to your oldest son, writing creates bounce in the mind of the reader. How pleasant that “bounce” is depends upon sentence length.

Writing instructor Gary Provost illustrates the importance of sentence length variety:

This sentence has five words. This is five words too. Five word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the symbols, and sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The writer achieves smooth reading when she arranges short sentences with longer sentences. This minimizes monotony. When a writer attempts to create variety with sentence length, she can emphasis an idea or create contrast between two ideas.

Here is an example with little variation:

But the mouse did not answer. He only twitched his whiskers. He thumped his tiny tail. He skittered away. The cat could not see him anymore.

Here is variation:

But the mouse did not answer. He only twitched his whiskers, thumped his tiny tail, and skittered away until the cat could not see him anymore.

Creating sentence length variety can improve writing style almost instantly. It’s one of the first things a writer can do when revising.

Figures of Speech

Figures of speech–also known as figurative language–enhances writing style in a fun way. Read more about using figures of speech.

Symbolism

In literature, a symbol is something concrete that represents something abstract. For example, a withered plant may represent a failed relationship. Many times that abstract thing is an emotional state. “Symbols offer a route into deeper meanings in a narrative, beyond surface events.” Symbolism in writing can give a story deeper meaning than the events happening on the surface.

Examples of symbols:

darkness = evil
light = good
a man’s guilty conscience = constant washing of hands

Symbolism in writing can’t be forced. It emerges as you write and rewrite. Sometimes if symbolism is forced into your story, it kills the narrative, makes it seem untrue. Sometimes it is best to concentrate on describing a person or object with honesty and not scream out “Look at me! I’m using symbolism!”

Once, when I was writing a short story, a dog in the story unintentionally became a symbol for the situation the dog’s owner found himself in. Someone who read the story pointed this out–I didn’t write it that way, but it worked for me. That made me realize how the subconscious inserts itself in the creative writing process.

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