Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Writing tips: What is style?

Creative Commons: dbdbrobot
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing style lately. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about it for a long time — as long as I’ve been writing, which is most of my life.

I find that my response to a book or to a writer, no matter what the subject is, depends a lot on style. I like an author who is original, who does not just try to copy a best-seller or the current trend in books you can pick up at the drug store.

But there is also something else that determines how well I like a story, something about the way the writer uses language.

I’ll give you an example: Margaret Atwood is generally accepted as one of today’s greatest writers. She has written a great many books in of a range of types — I am trying to avoid using the word “style” in different ways here — and, it could be argued, in different genres. Alias Grace could be called “historical fiction,” set in 19th century Upper Canada and based loosely on real events. The Handmaid’s Tale is a set in a dystopian future and, while it doesn’t have a lot of sci-fi tropes, it won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction.

Atwood is both accomplished and unarguably a master of the writing craft, but while she writes about many different subjects, there is something about her manner of writing that puts me off a little. The only word I can use to describe it is heavy. Her writing is heavy — I don’t read it quickly or easily; on the other hand, I can’t put it down once I start, either.

One writer whose style I really admire is Mark Helprin’s, particularly in his Winter’s Tale, a fantasy set in New York City. In addition to his ability to meld fantastic elements, humour and action into a setting simultaneously believable and fantastic, Helprin also manages to be very descriptive as well as economical with prose. It’s as good an example of magical realism as any I’ve ever read.

But what is it that determines the style? Word choice? Sentence length? Description? Active voice? Those are just a few items in the writer’s toolbox. Also critical are creating realistic, believable and interesting characters, pacing, mixing action and pathos and so much more.

The accepted good

There is a tension between popularity and what is accepted as “good writing” by the publishers and the leading literary critics of any time.

For instance, today, “good” writing is usually characterized by lean prose, active voice, realistic dialogue and sparse description. Writing coaches keep advising us to avoid adverbs in favour of more precise verbs, except when it comes to describing dialogue. We should only use “said,” and not try to change that around with “exclaimed,” or “replied.”

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard came out with ’s 10 rules of writing a couple of years ago; he admitted that he was at least a little facetious at the time, but now he says he seriously believes them. Okay. And Leonard is a great writer, and changed the literary world, and sells zillions of copies, okay, okay — but is he the arbiter of the English language, now? What if something happens in a sudden way? Elmore, what is wrong with the word “suddenly”?

The exemplars of great writing are still supposed to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I love their work, but again — should we all try to emulate their styles?

On the other side of that tension is writing that flies in the face of those rules, yet sells millions of copies. The current target of criticism is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s a passage:

I watch José open the bottle of champagne. He’s tall, and in his jeans and T-shirt, he’s all shoulders and muscles, tanned skin, dark hair, and burning dark eyes.

Descriptive, yes. Also clichéd — it’s been done so many times. “Burning dark eyes”? While we can all imagine what those must look like, couldn’t the author have thought of something original?

And yet, millions of readers ate that up, burning eyes and all. Did the burning eyes cause heartburn, I wonder?


Writing coaches also tell us not to use too much description. Hemingway and Fitzgerald did not describe what their protagonists looked like. Okay, but Dashiel Hammet did.

Efficiency is the goal!
(Photo: The Pug Father/Creative Commons )
I agree that too much description can get in the way of the story. There is a lot of material for people to read, that communication of any kind must compete for an audience’s attention with so much more material than there ever was before, so we writers should always try to get as much information across as efficiently as possible — fewer words, more information. I get that.

But we do need to describe some things, some times. And occasionally, an adverb is the best way to do that. See?

Who says so?

I cannot answer all these questions myself, so I am inviting other talented independent writers to weigh in. What is good style? How do they describe their own style? They’ll be appearing on this blog over the next couple of weeks. My first guest will be Roger Eschbacher, author of middle-grade fantasy Dragonfriend: Leonard the Great, Book 1.

So watch this space, and leave lots of comments and questions for the guests, please. Maybe we can finally determine exactly what writing style is, after all.


  1. I am reading Bones if the Earth & wasn't aware you had a children's book. Maybe I will run across it soon if I ever get caught up on reviews! Love your articles / blog posts. Very informative.

    1. That's right - the children's book is the short story, "Sam, the Strawb Part." It's $1.99 on Amazon, Smashwords, iBooks and elsewhere, and all proceeds go to charity.


  2. Sometimes I feel you have to choose between writing a book that'll sell and be popular or writing a book that won't be read as much but has better quality, and more "meat."

    When I started writing, I was studying French lit. so my work would be full of desciptions (I was writing in French back then, too.)I thought this was the way to do things. Then I started writing in English and discovered there was an open war against adjectives and adverbs. I wonder if that's just an English thing or if it applies to French, too...

    1. I don't know whether it applies in any other language, but I'm getting tired of the knee-jerk reactions against adverbs and adjectives. We have these words for a good reason - they have meaning.

      I don't think that we should use descriptive words to make up for poor writing, and there are many instances where you can replace a verb-adverb phrase with a stronger verb: eg, "He ran quickly" vs. "He dashed."

      But insisting that everyone write like Hemingway or Leonard, and sneering at any new writer who does describe people, settings and events is narrow-minded, I think.

    2. I would have to start reading in French again to see what works now, I guess.

      I agree with you. Adverbs and adjectives have their place. I think it's just a question of using them properly to strenghten our prose, and not to make up for poor writing.

      However, I wonder if this is not the direct consequence of our current instant culture. Everything has to be short and to the point, or else people lose interest (mind you, this is a gross generalisation.)

    3. I completely agree with you (see how I used that adverb). It's sort of like the fashion industry where a handful of people determine what the rest of the world should wear. And god forbid should anyone desire to follow his/her own sense of fashion.

      Writing style, to me, is just that -- a style of communicating a story or information. Stories that keep me interested are descriptive but straightforward. I don't like to get mired down with a lot of literary symbolism that requires an interpreter in order to follow the story. Yet, that kind of story has its place in the literary arena. It's all about choice. Giving readers something to choose from (yep, ended that with a preposition).

  3. Eliminate redundancy, delete what is irrelevant, make succinct the remainder; what is left is your style.
    There’s a spectrum from lean and breathless to obese and ponderous on which every writer falls; so long as every word contributes and the story is worth the telling, it should work.
    One advantage of self-publishing is that there is no ‘house style’ and you can write without that bothersome constraint. Major on voice; don’t worry too much about style. Selling books is not that different from selling washing machines. You sell yourself, your personality, your voice.

    1. Yes, it's the burning question, isn't it - can style be taught? I think something of its essence can be absorbed, perhaps. Immerse yourself in the best practitioners you can find - try Anthony Lane of The New Yorker (his collection 'Nobody's Perfect'), Martin Amis's 'The War Against Cliché, anything by Clive James: whoever in short, makes you spellbound with wonder about how they DO that. It's not so much the adverb/adjective/passive or active thing, (first rule of confident writing - break whatever rule you damn well like), but more an ear for the rhythm of a sentence which one misplaced word can ruin, where the stresses fall, how you add flesh to the bones of it. And then marry that with a compelling narrative. Simple, eh? We lesser mortals can but try ...