Tuesday, November 06, 2012

What is writing style? Guest post by Bruce Blake

What is writing style? How important is it to readers? To writers? To a writer’s success?

I am asking authors for their thoughts on these questions.

Bruce Blake is author of the best-selling fantasy/horror novels On Unfaithful Wings and All Who Wander are Lost and founder of the Guild of Dreams fantasy writers’ collective. His latest novel is the epic fantasy Blood of the King, all available on Amazon.

Bruce, how would you describe your own writing style?

I am a big believer in Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Good Writing. If anyone's not familiar, included amongst these are: avoid detailed descriptions of characters, don't go into great detail describing places and things, and try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Those are the big three for me. I try not to waste any words. I'm a fan of many authors who are well known for their detailed descriptions (George R.R. Martin, China Mieville, etc.), but that's just not my style. I try to make every word count and use as few of them as possible. Short sentences, sharp dialogue, and I'm not afraid to throw out the odd fragment here and there.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?

I admire a lot of authors whose styles differ from mine and I would never attempt to emulate, like those I mentioned above, and J.R.R. Tolkien (I've often wondered how my style would be if I changed my name to Bruce R.R. Blake). I don't really try to emulate anyone, but I've been compared to Jim Butcher (I've only read one of his books) and Mike Carey. If I had to pick one novel in which the style particularly impressed me, it would have to be The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Never have sentence fragments been so powerful.

Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?

I think dislike is a strong word; there is something to take away from any writer's style. Having said that, I'm not a fan of writing that is more about the writing than it is about the characters and their story, though most writers who choose that style are far more talented than I can ever hope to be.

How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?

I'm pretty happy with my style but, like everyone, I'm always striving to improve. Things definitely change during the rewriting and editing; that's when my style really emerges. I'm not a writer who will ever publish something as it came out during the first draft, nor will I usually even consider showing it to someone who has the ability to read. Too often, my first drafts end up being information dumps that need to be molded into shape. Sometimes they read like I was taking point-form notes during a lecture instead of writing a novel. My latest book, Blood of the King, went through about 12 drafts.

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?

Again, my style tends to be succinct. I pay attention to the lengths of my sentences and try to use them for maximum impact; it's not unusual for me to have sentences of only a couple of words or a paragraph that is only one word. I'm also conscious of word choices. I have a list I call “Bruce's Bad Words” that I try to weed out of my novels. It naturally includes words that signify passive constructs—like was, were and had—but it also includes words I use habitually (glance, something, moment) and what I call wishy-washy words (almost, barely, nearly). Ideally, I hope its the story, pacing and characters that help readers identify my writing. I think a truly good style should be close to invisible to any reader who is not looking for it.

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?

I began writing that certain sub-genres of fantasy have requirements of style, but I did a rewrite, because that is not true. I think style is always open, but genre can impose certain tones or voices on a writer. Epic fantasy demands a different tone than urban fantasy, for instance, though the things that make up style—sentence lengths, dialogue, pacing, etc.—can remain essentially the same.

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?

Yes, I do. I think that style is the thing that most readers respond to in genre writing, whether they can put their finger on what that style is or not. As I said, my goal is that my readers aren't even conscious of my style. I want it to be out of the way so my readers can concentrate on the characters and the story, not be distracted by how I tell it.

How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?

Style is essential. It's what makes a novel walk and talk. A great story with interesting characters is still a laborious read when poorly written. Pacing, tone, voice, structure; all these things contribute to a reader's enjoyment of a book, and these are the elements of style (my apologies to Mr. Strunk and Mr. White). If you take a look through the one and two star reviews of any book on Amazon, you will find many “it would have been a great story if it was written by someone else” comments. If I use my magic decoder ring on that phrase, it says: “I didn't like the writer's style.”

Thank you, Bruce.

Bruce's blog is The Thoughts and Opinions of a Writer on the Rise. He is also the founder of the Guild of Dreams fantasy writers' collective. On The Guild of Dreams blog, Guild members take turns posting very interesting ideas, opinions, interviews, excerpts and lots of other stuff.


  1. Anonymous12:50 PM

    Thanks for letting me visit your blog, Scott. It was intersting answering questions about style; it's something I think about without even realizing I'm thinking about it.

    1. You're more than welcome, Bruce. I want to prompt more writers as well as readers to think about writing style, and get some discussion going. Does it really matter? Do readers read because of writing style?

      What about readers? What do you think?

  2. I'll chime in with my irrelevant opinion *smile*

    I've read just about every genre, in every voice imaginable. Liked many. Don't really get much a kick from literary that takes ten paragraphs to set the scene.

    Other than that, it's the most critical rule Bruce mentioned above: Leave out the stuff the reader skips.

    A reader can be intrigued by any style of voice. It's all a combination (I should type that in caps) of the four key elements.


    Does the combination work for the reader? It will for one. Not for another. The worst thing a writer can do is to write for everyone.

    That's impossible.

    Write what you like.

    And with luck, you might find a few dedicated followers, who will in turn spread the word.