What is a Writing Style?
It is the most important and precious thing a writer or author owns. This is what helps us illustrate, immerse, and communicate beyond the normal means of writing. The style each of us has textures us as unique in the ocean of authors out there in the world. It is the flavor we experience when we read between Neil Gaiman, Nora Roberts, J.K. Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Stephanie Meyers, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and so on. Not one of their writing styles feel like the others.
Granted I can’t tell you how to write your story, but I can give you the tools to develop your writing into something stronger. Make you aware of issues and elements that make up a writing style as a whole. I cannot express the importance in developing your own unique voice for storytelling or even conveying information. As a reminder, this is only my own personal advice and thoughts. My goal is simply to share my methods in hopes that it proves useful to other writers and dreamers.
Also, I am so sorry for the length and heaviness of this particular Writing Tips segment. I wanted to break things out so it would be easier to chew, but I can’t imagine not including all of these puzzle pieces that I believe help someone develop their writing style and strengthen their ability to share their story.
Showing versus Telling
Scouring the internet for writing advice and you are going to see the phrase “Show, not tell” a billion times. If you are lucky they give you a great example of what they mean by this phrase. When you are “Telling” in a sentence, paragraph, or even with in dialogue, it can feel detached to a reader. It also can feel like grade school writing or reading as well, where there’s a lack of emotion or sense of being there in the story with the characters or world. When a writer has a well-developed writing style, they pull the reader in by “Showing” us what’s going on in the world and especially their characters. Let’s dive a little deeper and give you some examples of “Telling” and ideas of how you can change it into “Showing”. In short, showing should take advantage of the senses so the reader can relate and interact with the scene or moment.
Example One – Telling:
I sat on the boulder in silence and it was winter time.
Example One – Showing:
Deafened by my thoughts, I sat there on an old boulder, its stone cold and wet with ice where I touched it.
Notice how instead of writing “silence” that its shown by the sensation of the main character being “…deafened by [his] thoughts.” Again, a similar shift happens with the word “winter” where it is expressed with “…cold and wet with ice.” Take a moment and in your mind compare the pictures and sensations created by each version. As a reader, which one put you into the story better? Notice how telling a scene has a bland and disconnected feel as a reader versus showing. When you show in a sentence, you allow the reader to explore the story with their senses: touch, smell, taste, ears and eyes.
Example Two – Telling:
“Aren’t you cold?” The young child asked, interrupting my thoughts. “Are you lost?”
Example Two – Showing:
“Aren’t you cold?” A small voice took me from my thoughts as I failed to break my glare from the dagger. “Are you lost?”
Here I has expressed how telling versus showing in dialogue can make a huge difference. Once more, the depth of immersion and pull on the reader is drastically different. As the writer, should be focused on showing the reader what’s going on, not leave the details vague or worse void of imagery. You can hear a tiny voice, and often we assume someone small or a child. In the telling version, we know his thoughts were interrupted but nothing more. In the showing, the voice “took” the character from his thoughts, but he was still staring at an object of interest. This paints a completely different tone and story. Showing was able to use the reader’s sense of hearing, sight, and touch.
I cannot express the importance of being consistent within your writing piece and story. Nothing irks a reader more than when some part of a story gets changed. This is anywhere from the way a character is described to recalling an event or element incorrectly. Do not be afraid to double check, and don’t assume you remember what you put in Chapter One is what really is in Chapter One.
Another way to be inconsistent is how a name or something is spelled. This covers both fictional or self-made words to actual words. For example, colour versus color. They are both correct, but be sure to pick one, and stick to only that one throughout the entire written piece! Shifting how you spell something will break a reader out of the story or cause the reading to jolt or be clunky.
Lastly, be consistent on how you represent numbers within your written piece. It doesn’t matter if you use “32” or “thirty-two”, as long as all the numerics are represented in the same manner. My recommendation is to always write them out in their word form. Being a very visual person, I find the intrusion of 123 disrupting to my reading flow and breaks me out of my story as if someone threw ice water on me. I know that seems weird, but if you scan over all these paragraphs, you will notice the numbers contained within this one look misplaced and awkward. Another issue in consistency can be formatting. If all the thoughts your character are italicized then DO NOT deviate from that, just like with the issue involving your numbers.
It is this element of your writing style that will decide how you will show the story to your readers. You may be asked, “What perspective are you writing in?” and if you falter in answering fast enough you get giggled at or the rolling of eyes. Let me enlighten you, all they are asking is how close are we to the main characters. The perspectives are referred to as First-person, Third-person, and Narrative. I could tell you their definitions and all that fancy mumbo-jumbo that everyone else has or I can just show you the difference. Today, I am simply going to show you the difference. As I implied, this expresses how close the reader gets to travel with the main characters throughout the story.
You will be writing a lot of I, me, my, mines and other words that makes it as if the reader is the main character.
Remorse heavy on my heart, I stared at my pale childlike hands. They were no different from an eight year-old boy’s hands, but these were mine at the age of twenty-eight.
In this writing perspective you will find yourself using a lot of He/She, His/Her, Their, they, and other words needed to make it seem as if the reader is looking over the character’s shoulder all the time.
His blue eyes were bright with the innocence of his kindhearted nature. Behind him was a toboggan with branches bundled on it, he was out collecting wood for fire.
This uses the third-person perspective, but it has one major detail: a narrator. Often we see a narrative perspective for fairy tales or children stories, but they can be very handy in any genre for that all-knowing feel or watching the story play out like a movie. A lot more uses of The green frog, the boy sat, and so on.
Once upon a time, there lived a little old lady in a great big boot for a house.
Tense – Past, Present, Future
To be honest, this is where I have the hardest time. It’s not that I don’t know the difference, but in the heat of getting that first draft of a novel down, I tend to let loose a bad habit of mix matching tenses. We learned it more in the sense of tenses involving the word itself: ran, run, running. What they failed to tell me in class was how drastically this changes the way my story is told and read. Some words that you will find that have a lot of pull on your tense are has, have, will, did and so on. The other factor in distorting tenses is the ending in your verbs: -ing versus -ed. Considering I completely stink at this, I will do us BOTH a favor and give you a very solid source that dives deeper than I ever could dream to achieve here.
Online Writing Lab – Sequence of Tenses: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/01/
One of the best ways to clean up your writing is checking for redundancy. We all do it, especially during the desperation of laying the first draft to paper. What most don’t illustrate is that you can be redundant in several ways. The three offenders I check for are the following: repetitive vocabulary, sentence starters, and content. Let me dive into these and express what each look like within an example.
Example One – Repetitive Vocabulary:
Sunlight speckled the ground where large roots leapt in and out of the ground.
Here is a prime example of a moment in my own writing where a made this mistake. I used the word “ground” twice within the SAME sentence. I normally aim to not even use the same word between two sentences, which is my recommendation when it concerns developing your writing style to read smoother and hit harder. All that was needed to fix this sentence, like most instances, was to change/trade out one of the grounds with a similar word or synonym. This is where a Thesaurus can become your best friend! Microsoft word has one built in so that helps a lot, but I also own a hardcopy version too. If you are using other software, check to see if you can find a free plug-in or add-on! I know for a fact that Google Docs has a Thesaurus Add-on since I personally downloaded it for free for when I am working with that word processor.
Example Two – Sentence Starters:
The sizzling of his skin stung in his ears as the fire whooshed about him. The force of the hit had banged his back against the tree, only adding to his ire.
Here you see that both these sentences start with the same word. Often it is the, he , she, his, her, A, There, This, and so forth. Granted, as a writer you will have to decide how to best clean these issues up, but in the long run it will help you strengthen your writing as well as develop a style more unique to you. There are add-on or plug-in software/programs that can work in conjunction to your word processor. I use a program called “myWordCount” which works with my Microsoft Word. Not only can it tell me what words I start sentences with the most, but it tells me how close is to the one before it and highlights them in colors to express this information. This software does more including repeat words, phrases, and checks for ungodly sentence lengths. Find a link to that program here which is pretty much a $15 expense that will be a great help: http://www.mywritertools.com/Products_wordcount.asp
Example Two – Fix:
The sizzling of his skin stung in his ears as the fire whooshed about him. A force hit him, banging his back against the tree, adding to his ire.
Notice how much the tone shifts and how less awkward it was to read in this fix. I was even able to drop the word “only” a very bad crutch word I have a habit doing in my first draft. My goal is to bring awareness within your own writing. Being able to write a cleaner first draft helps, but a lot of this information is going to aid you in the nightmare we call “Self-Editing”. If you have a checklist of things to look for or beware of, it makes it that much easier to develop a style while also creating better habits in the first write-ups.
Example Three – Content:
As I started the mundane work of washing, rinsing and drying dishes a thought came to me; it was a nice enough day to spend some time in the sun. With it being the middle of summer, a trip to the beach sounded nice. (Excerpt from Kim A.)
This sentence has redundant content which is much harder to see. Unlike other forms of redundancy where you are matching the same word, here you are checking for instances where you may have said the same thing twice, just written different. In this example, “a nice enough day to spend some time in the sun” and the following sentence are stating the same thing.
Example Three – Fix 1:
As I started the mundane work of washing, rinsing and drying dishes a thought came to me; it was a sunny summer day and the beach was sounding nice. (Based on Excerpt from Kim A.)
Here is an fix where a lot of content was dropped. The idea behind this fix is to do one of two things: either drop one of the sentences or repeat content; OR consolidate and rework them into one sentence. The consolidation is a great technique if you find that you really love elements in both sentences or trouble areas.
Example Three – Fix 2:
As I started the mundane work of washing, rinsing and drying dishes a thought came to me; I should have gotten theses chores done before I went out last night. Images of the beach were crossing my mind, the relaxing sound of the waves crashing on the shore. (Excerpt from Kim A.)
Sometimes this an opportunity to fix an area that is weak or to add content. Unlike the original, this fix adds more emotion and expressed the regret and the want without being redundant in the content like it had been. Expanding content where a fix like this is needed can help fix pacing, immersion, transition and more.
This is the heartbeat of how your story is told through your writing style. Genres tend to carry similar pacing, like the way you read a Mystery or thriller has a totally different march or gallop compared to an epic fantasy. On top of this, each author sings in a different tone, some dark others romantic and its the overall combination that makes up the pacing of a story. Checking your pacing can be hard, but I have found reading it out loud can help a ton. Something about hearing the words you’ve written can catch where you are making a ready stumble or hiccup and these are areas to fix. As for how to fix them really comes down to where the trouble is and often, it falls back to a lot of the other sections covered in here. It can be a bad habit, word choice needing adjusting, chopping out a redundant section, or chopping out part of the sentence to land it hard.
A lot of writers love to write to music and I am definitely one of them. If anyone looks at my playlists, they’re all named after a book or character. What I do, is while writing a scene I start playing the background music to the movie playing out in my head. There has been times where I go as far as putting one song on repeat and play it over and over until I get my words to hit in the same manner and tone the song does for my own imagination. Granted I still have to walk away, break away, forget that paragraph and revisit it and read it without music to make sure it’s solid. Each story has its own dance to the music of the author’s writing.
Crutches and Cliches
Your biggest battle will be here. When you hit your self-edits you will pull your hair out (if you have any at all at this point) to see the mountain of cliches and crutch words you leaned on without knowing. Cliches and phrases will be easier to catch since they are larger and they also add to any redundancy you see in your content. Some examples of common cliches to avoid can be “to the bitter end”, “all walks of life”, “paying the piper”, “writing on the wall”, “chomping at the bit”, and so on. These have been read over and over and over again by readers or heard by their ears a billion times. Avoid them at all costs.
Crutches and crutch words are trickery since we can find a common list but it can also fall back on the writing where you reused a phrase or word all the time to express or connect words. Some common crutches I am guilty of are “in a bit”, “in/for/at the moment”, “it was as if”, and I think you see what I am talking about. They are easy to overuse and should be taken our and replaced when necessary. In my own self-edits, most of my sentences just needed it deleted and suddenly my pacing improved drastically.
Beware of crutch words. These buggers sneak into your writing and even in your editing! Like the crutch phrase, it can be deleted and improve your writing style. Some of the crutch words I have struggled with are the following: that, clear, always, already, usually, normally, very, thing, some, maybe, might, real and so forth. This also falls into the advice of avoiding or limiting the use of adverbs. Adverbs (very, words ending in -ly) tend to be damaging to developing a writing style, forcing the writer to be lazy instead of being more descriptive, kill immersion, devastate pacing and a big nuclear bomb is more beneficial in the end.
Short and sweet, be cautious and acknowledgeable of the words and their exact definitions. Explore and expand your vocabulary but compare a word’s definition to the way readers might perceive it. Let use a simple sentence and switch out one word a few times. While you read these, think of the imagery and tone it creates and shifts for you as the reader:
His face was scarred and I found myself looking away in shame.
His face was miamed and I found myself looking away in shame.
His face was disfigured and I found myself looking away in shame.
His face was slashed and I found myself looking away in shame.
His face was blemished and I found myself looking away in shame.
All of these shifts are considered acceptable synonyms rooting to scarred, according to Thesaurus.com . Yet, when your eyes hit the words being swapped and compared it the rest of the sentence, it shifts the look, feel, and reaction a lot. Don’t always accept the first word offered and try to be aware of the words you use here. You can misconstrue what you meant to tell the reader by making poor choices!
We all have these and if you are not making a list in a journal or text file someplace, SHAME ON YOU! I have them, and often it falls under crutches and cliche sorts of bad habits. Another bad habit I have is mixing tenses and flip-flopping bit with bet. It seems silly, but without a checklist of the bad things I do no matter how hard I try to resist, my editing efforts would not go so easily in finding them within my 80,000+ word novels I tend to write. I mean, I even have a bad habit in typing where me and my get flopped unintentionally. Worse, I read them as I intended to write them instead of what I actually wrote! So do yourself a HUGE favor, start to notice your bad habits and keep an on-going list of what they are so that you can improve faster as well as edit your work easier.
Less Can be More
Run-on sentences can exhaust a reader or disrupt their flow of reading. They can hurt a story’s pacing and take away from fast pace and intense moments in your plotline. Break it up. Never ever be afraid to get rid of that but/and/yet and just have 2 sentences. Even better, check for redundancy and other issues within the never-ending line to help shorten it. A lot of times writers find there is irrelevant information clogging it up and it can be tossed without losing the scene. A bonus is pacing improves and the scene hits harder. In the end, this is one of those areas where you will have to do some trial and error to see what fits the writing style you are trying to develop.
Oh boy, this is a big deal. Transition covers a large amount of advice and subjects within the realm of writing. I will dive into this deeper in another segment, but for now let em place in some information to help you in terms of writing development. This covers how you transition in terms of time, character point-of-views, flashback, and even from one event to another. Classic or common transition techniques often use a closing statement followed by a break or gap between paragraphs to visually cue that there is a leap in time, subject or change in views. A gap isn’t the only way of expressing a leap in the storyline. My best advice here is to read (or revisit) books that have transitions like this and explore how authors of various writing styles tackle this feat.
Another transition we try to do is switch which character the story is following. This can be very handy to express the condition of a main character, give the readers new or complete perspective on an element, or express emotions that the main character does not know about. Stephen King is one author who switches character point-of-views or POVs often to give his readers an all-knowing view of what is going on. This is handy since he can make the reader aware of something while keeping the main character in the dark.
Beyond these two concepts is the fact that you need to be aware of transitioning from one major event to the next. You can’t jump and jerk your readers from one point to another. You have to take them on a ride, give them slower parts to help digest and catch their breaths and smoothly lead them to the next exciting event. Being able to provide paragraphs of helping the reader travel from one part to the next within your storyline is very important for both immersion and pacing. It may take you a few tries and edits even to find where you fail to do so but if you have a good editor or proofreader they can identify this trouble areas. Often my own volunteer readers inform of places that “jump” or feel “confusing and missing something”. These are great indicators that you failed to transition a reader from one area which causes a disruption to their flow of reading.
Stop Being Afraid To Put That In!
A hard lesson I learned was to stop hiding content. I cannot tell you how many times I refused to put something in fearing it would spoil some grand secret, but in the end I was killing my story and making it more and more confusing. Foreshadowing is a very powerful tool, though its up to the writing style how often this one is implemented within the story. Remember that your reader only knows as much as you’ve written on the page to this point you are reluctant to write something. Step back and if it’s something that only some could possibly guess correctly of what it means or might imply happens later, PUT THAT IN! Readers love to read books for a second time and that’s when they start seeing these snippets of information the most.
Writing style is always working towards one goal: Reader Immersion. What exactly do I mean by this? We aim to write so that a reader falls into a story and becomes part of the world we are sharing with them. If they can’t taste, smell, see, feel, or care about the characters and places, it makes it impossible for them to read it to the end. By picking up the book they express they want to read it, but our writing styles make readers need to read the book. They should be able to leave the real world behind with ease and hours later snap out of it feeling an ache in their hearts to have to stop. In short, any time you find a point in your writing where it jerks readers out of the reading or makes them stumble, you are breaking immersion.
I can only hope that somewhere in this massive heap of information there is an answer or a newfound sense of awareness to help you develop your writing style and improve your reader’s ability to be immersed within your story. Without these, we fail at our job. Immersion is what makes a readers gasp, scream at the pages, spill warm tears on the words before them as they feel the emotions of our characters as if they were their own. The only sure way to check styling is to put yourself in the shoes of a reader and ask yourself, “Am I experiencing this story or just reading?” and the answer should always be “Yes, I am experiencing the story, I can feel the beating of the hearts within it!”.