One of my students wrote a paper on how to improve writing, and he focused on voice and style. He sent me a set of questions. Here were my answers:
- Being a writer, what does it mean to have your own writing style?
- Because I write for publication,my own style is very important. Someone once said that all that is necessary to write successful fiction is to have an appealing, narrative voice. I don’t know that I believe that completely, but I do know there are writers whose style is very pleasing to me. So, I think a writer’s “style” or “voice” is vital.
- How can a beginning writer wishing to add their own voice or style to their work go about doing so?
- I’m afraid there’s no quick path to developing your own style other than writing a lot. Writers go through stages. For a while they will be imitative: they’ll try to sound like the writers they admire. They might not even be aware they are doing it. (More on imitation as a way to work on style later) Then, slowly, they’ll break away from that and begin to sound more and more like themselves. You have to write a lot and be conscious of what sort of choices you are making in how you write what you write about.
- Is it important for people to have their own writing style?
- For most people (the ones who aren’t writing for publication), writing for clarity and completeness are probably more important than developing their style. Many, many, many college papers that are perfectly adequate in communicating what the writer means are fairly styleless, which just means that they sound like each other. If you had to work on clarity or style, work on clarity first.
- Are there any writing exercises that are helpful in trying to develop writing style or voice?
- Once again, the main advice is to write a lot, write so much that writing becomes second nature to the progress of your thoughts. However, I think that a conscious attention to the style of the writers you admire, and looking at the style of the writers they admire, can start you down the road to being more aware of your own style. This goes along with the standard advice to all new writers, which is to read a lot. Another exercise you can try is as an exercise to purposefully try to imitate a variety of styles (a piece written like Edgar Allan Poe, and then one like Jane Austen, and then one like Ursula Le Guin). It’s not that you want to sound like those writers, but by imitating you will become much more aware of the variety of word choices and rhythms that are available to you. Somewhere in all of that work, your own style will begin to percolate out.
- How can there be such a wide variety of writing styles when we all use the same basic language?
- It’s simple math. There are thousands of words that can be arranged in billions of combinations. It’s only natural that some people would arrange those words in patterns that are identifiably their pattern and not someone else’s.
- To sum it all up if you could give one piece of advice regarding writing style, what would it be?
- We’re back to the write a lot starting point. No matter what else you do, eventually, your style will come out of a long period of time that you spend writing. Of course, you already have a style. Your style may be the deadening cadence of the traditional student essay, or it may be something that is already peculiarly your own, but the more you write, the more your style (and control of style–you can write in different styles, after all) will develop.
A writer friend of mine suggested that the best advice he would give would be to read a bunch. I think that’s important too, but I believe there’s a more nuanced way of looking at the impact of reading on style because reading doesn’t seem to have a one to one cause and effect relationship to writing. For example, almost all of my creative writing students had been exposed to hundreds and hundreds of stories in their lives. Some of them were deeply read and loved story, but their own stories had no drama, were oddly organized, lacked character, and in general read like they’d never seen a story before.
On a smaller scale, I’ve noticed that bad spellers are bad spellers, no matter how much they read; and the vast majority of students write sentences based on linking verbs, or passive sentences, or convoluted sentences, no matter how many elegant, well-worded sentences they’d read up to that point.
So, clearly, reading and reading a lot is just a part of the answer.
Gwendolyn Clare told me, “I think it has less to do with the quantity of reading and/or writing, and more to do with making a conscious effort to think analytically about the writing process. It’s possible to watch a lot of TV without ever learning anything about scriptwriting or acting, because you are consuming it passively. Likewise, I think it’s possible to go through the motions of reading and writing without learning much, because it’s the act of critical thinking (which may or may not accompany the process of reading/writing) that’s important.”
I absolutely agree.