One Key to Good Style: Consistency

color-feather-isolated-1-981692-mThis week, I want to talk about style when it comes to creative writing. Style is one of those things that are hard to define, yet we all know style when we see it developed.

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.

That means:

  • 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

panic-room-3-555539-m

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 craftΒ  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!

If you found this post helpful, you might also find these posts about style and about writing tics worth your time. And if you’d like, you can sign up to follow my blog at the top right of the page.

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30 responses to “One Key to Good Style: Consistency

  1. Great post. I’ve read that the shape of the paragraphs tells the author. I don’t think so, I think it has more to do with the way the writer puts the words together. Finger prints look similar, but every person’s is different.

  2. I am working on improving style as I change from one genre to another. The southern dialect and lilting voice of a Historical Fiction piece written about the southern USA region is not going to work well in a crime novel. So we will see how this works out.

  3. I would say my style is very wordy with a lot of wit in it. I need to watch out for the repetitive words though. Before, begins, starts, and just appear to be my weaknesses. I wonder if everyone has those reflex words that they shouldn’t use, but appear all the time during an early draft.

    Good advice about not forcing a style. Back in college, I had a few people suggest imitating styles and it led to disaster. There’s simply something unnatural about doing that. I have some friends that are striving to perfect that style of their favorite author, which has pushed them into a holding pattern. No forward momentum in years, yet they still talk as if they’re making progress.

    • Everyone has those “reflex words,” as you call them. They differ from person to person but we each have our own set. It’s definitely important to hone in on them during editing, like you say.

      And I’m glad you agree with me about imitation. Like I said, it can be somewhat cool to write a couple of pages now and then that way, like we did as exercises in my creative writing classes. But nothing beyond that, I feel, is really helpful and can even be harmful.

      • Honing in right now, but it’s on my first book. I’m glad Indie Authordom has that benefit of being able to fix things like this since I was recently told about it.

        Testing and experimentation is definitely worthwhile. Never really thought of that.

  4. I repeat myself a lot in my writing. I couldn’t explain why because I’m still trying to figure it out. Great post and great advice!

    • Beta readers come in handy there, letting you know when something feels repetitive. There is a difference in reinforcing a point readers might have forgotten or not paid attention to and just repeating yourself too much.

      Lot so us, including me, repeat ourselves in our writing. It’s definitely something to pay attention to.

  5. My description of characters is shallow and I feel I’m bit repetive with some words.

    • We are all repetitive with some words…. The trick is to recognize what our go-to words and phrases are and edit them out whenever we can.

      I actually feel the same way, sometimes, about my character description. Sometimes, though, less is more. Readers like to be able to fill in the blanks and create their own image of a character as much as possible.

  6. *whining* Ugh, but I like my adverbsss… 😦

  7. Style is a weird thing. I remember reading a book by one writer and having this nagging sense I’d read a book of theirs before, but knowing I hadn’t. After I while I dug through my book collection and realized a story of theirs was in an anthology I’d read years earlier. I re-read it and noticed the similar use of words and pacing, and was really struck by the way the author had a consistent tone of sorts.

  8. And never write without your towel! I have always loved Douglas Adams. Ehem, I mean his writing, of course. πŸ™‚

  9. I like your point about style relating to what you’re good at. It’s one of those things that seems obvious now you’ve said it, but that I hadn’t thought of before. It’s useful in working out my style, and analysing that of others. Thanks!

  10. The word consistently sometimes scares me. Especially when it’s applied to my writing. But seriously- how do we do anything consistently? I think it comes down to not thinking about it, and then figuring it out later. Maybe I’m in denial?

    My writing tics make me twitch. Let’s just say I have a few. πŸ˜‰

    • We ALL have a few!!! For me, consistency just means, really, doing what feels natural the entire way through, not forcing something that isn’t your voice unless it’s for a specific artistic purpose. That’s all πŸ™‚ I don’t mean to be scary. Writing should be fun, not scary! And consistency should be part of the fun…. the routine, the “this I how I do things” feeling of comfort and normalcy.

  11. I write in different styles depending on the setting of my stories. One reader commented about how different my style was for a new story I was writing in one setting and a number of stories I’d previously written in a different setting. This reader had enjoyed the style I used in the set of previously written stories but wasn’t thrilled with the style in the new story. I’d never thought about style much before that. It wasn’t that I’d intentionally tried to alter my style. It just happened that way. Reflecting on the reader’s feedback, I could see what they meant. I stopped working on that new story after that. I might go back to it some day.

    Every byline is a brand. Does having two different styles under the same byline hurt that brand? If you want to write in two different styles, should you use a pseudonym for stories written in one of the styles?

    • This is a really poignant reflection! I think you’ve hit on something here. Some writers who write in multiple genres and shift style like you describe here often publish under different names for each genre. Just to avoid what you ran into, because a byline really is a brand.

  12. Oh my gosh. You’re my hero this week. Thank you for writing these posts!

    Haven’t found my true style or voice, yet. I know it’s a little sarcastic, maybe a little dramatized, but still honest. I notice I have a hard time with transitions, and I’m learning the phrases that I tend to overuse. I’ve actively been working to vary sentence length and vocabulary. Definitely have written some stuff that is painful to look at, but I look at it, pinpoint what’s hurts me about it, and then think about what I can do to make it work a little better.

    Haven’t given up yet, so at least I’m getting that right.

    Really digging your blog. Thanks again.

    • I am so honored you’ve found these posts helpful!!! Oh my gosh, don’t get me started on transitions. They are SO tough. They are awful for everyone, I think (if that makes you feel any better). I’m always struggling with them.

      I personally love a sarcastic, honest tone. It cracks me up and really makes me think.

  13. I have no problem with sarcasm, especially in my new novel. It’s repetitiveness that I need to edit out. And edit mercifully! Thanks for this post. It’s very helpful.

  14. oh, and tics– yikes! I have many.

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