Plot and character aside, style is a mix of tone, mood, sentence structure, and level of formality, among other things, working together to create an overall effect in the mind of a reader.
I once had a creative writing instructor tell me, after reading two very different pieces (theme-wise, character-wise) that I had written for his class, that he could have figured out the same person had written those stories.
I was shocked, but it all comes down to maintaining a certain style in my writing that he was able to identify in each piece.
Does this mean those stories were good? Not at all. My instructor, more than likely, honed in on endemic stylistic weaknesses I had (and hopefully have improved since then.) Poor or strong, style is style.
When we perfect and improve our style, we “find our style,” as editors like to say.
I sometimes say that writing fiction is hard, and writing good fiction is that much harder. One of the keys of writing good fiction is stylistic consistency.
WHAT DOES STYLISTIC CONSISTENCY MEAN?
Stylistic consistency means a lot of things, some of which might not seem to automatically fit the term “consistent.”
A good, consistent writer:
- CONSISTENTLY varies sentence length and type within paragraphs while maintaining an overall consistency throughout his or her work that makes each paragraph feel as though it belongs next to the others.
- CONSISTENTLY removes as many instances of adverbs, passive voice, and other weak grammatical structures (which I call writing tics) as possible.
- CONSISTENTLY writes in the way that feels natural and right to him or her, whether that means short or ornate sentences, contractions or no contractions.
- CONSISTENTLY upholds his or her stylistic M.O. and breaks the “rules” only when able to defend that break as the best means to a particular end.
Yes, I think M.O. is a good way to think of style. Modus operandi: one’s general way of operating. If you’re not familiar with this term, it is often applied to criminals who operate their crimes according to a set pattern of behavior.
M.O. is a criminal’s trademark. It’s the connections that help police link one crime to another or to a specific perp (unless a copycat is involved, I guess). Style is a writer’s trademark and can function the same way.
DON’T FORCE STYLE, ESPECIALLY NOT ONE THAT ISN’T YOURS
Some might disagree with me here, and that’s fine, but I feel that you can’t force style. How you personally write well will develop naturally when you write A LOT and you focus on making your writing better.
- Fewer repeated words
- Better grammar
- More consistency, as discussed above.
Writing like someone else–imitating the absurdist style and pithy humor of Douglas Adams, for instance, which I once tried to do–is a fun, short-term experiment to expand your skill set and your experience as a writer.
It’s not ever a way to find your own unique voice.
You see, only Douglas Adams can write like Douglas Adams and craft something as genius as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” because only he WAS Douglas Adams. While his style has some similarities with Oscar Wilde’s, Wilde was much more formal (perhaps because he lived in the 19th century, when people had wider vocabularies).
Adams and Wilde are similar and yet different, and each played to his strengths. Wilde often wrote about the upper class in a witty but formal style that largely turned language upon itself.
Adams knew his style was more suited for the everyman, and so he wrote about Arthur Dent, pretty much the epitome of the everyman.
Our jobs as writers is to find our own voice and to write in that unique way only we can.
Don’t panic if you don’t feel you have found your style, your voice, yet. Just keep writing, and keep going through what you’ve written.
I say that a lot–just keep writing–because it’s good advice, and it’s necessary. It’s also hypocritical of me, I admit that, because I haven’t touched my fiction in a month, but….
You might write some trash. We all have written awful stuff, and as painful as it is emotionally to see how far you have to go, that realization is “mostly harmless.”
Rather, it’s only harmful if you let it be toxic instead of medicinal.
You can’t get better if you don’t know what your weak spots are, right? When you write something, focus on identifying what is good and what is bad about your piece.
Even the first thing a writer produces, though far from publishable as a general rule, will have some strong points.
Writing–heck, style–is all about capitalizing on and maximizing your strengths. So figure out: what do I do well? What can I learn to do better? What is outside of my skill set and is better to avoid as much as possible?
Me, I’m not witty. I would LOVE to craft hilarious and pithy, sarcastic and satiric knocks on the problems of society (while, hopefully, also hinting at ways we can improve). That’s just not where my abilities lie.
I envy people who can be funny…. My brain doesn’t work that way. I’ve learned to recognize that, to accept it, and most importantly, not to try to be someone I’m not in my writing.
So, how would you define your style, if you feel you have one? Are you still working on that? What writers do you admire for their style? Feel free to comment!