Writing Styles: What is Style in Writing?
Writing styles may be hard to define, but something separates Hemingway from Steinbeck, Atwood from LeGuin, or Keats from Wordsworth. Though two given writers might dwell on similar themes, every writer expresses a unique writing style, conveyed through elements like word choice, narrative structure, and the author’s own voice.
But what is style in writing? On some level, style is ineffable. It’s also emergent: when you parse the elements of writing styles, you lose something that lives in how you put them together.
This article provides tips for honing style in your own work. We’ll analyze the different types of writing styles, look at writing styles examples from various famous authors, and suggest different ways to experiment in your own work.
But first, let’s clarify what we mean when we say “writing styles.” What is style in writing?
What is Style in Writing?
Think of writing style as the author’s thumbprint—a unique and indelible mark on the voice and personality of the work. If a writer’s work is a house, style is what adorns that house: the window blinds, the doormat, the freshly painted eaves.
Style is like an author’s thumbprint—a unique and indelible mark on the voice and personality of the work.
Authors doesn’t only hone their style deliberately: writing styles emerge as a result of dedication, the author’s own personality, and a continuous experimentation with language and meaning.
To illustrate what we mean by style, let’s compare two writing styles examples from two different works of fiction. Each excerpt talks about the same dilemma—the endurance of memory—but approaches that dilemma in uniquely stylish ways.
“Perhaps you have forgotten. That’s one of the great problems of our modern world, you know. Forgetting. The victim never forgets. Ask an Irishman what the English did to him in 1920 and he’ll tell you the day of the month and the time and the name of every man they killed. Ask an Iranian what the English did to him in 1953 and he’ll tell you. His child will tell you. His grandchild will tell you. And when he has one, his great-grandchild will tell you too. But ask an Englishman—” He flung up his hands in mock ignorance. “If he ever knew, he has forgotten. ‘Move on!’ you tell us. ‘Move on! Forget what we’ve done to you. Tomorrow’s another day!’ But it isn’t, Mr. Brue.” He still had Brue’s hand. “Tomorrow was created yesterday, you see. That is the point I was making to you. And by the day before yesterday, too. To ignore history is to ignore the wolf at the door.”
—John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man
Compare this with the following excerpt:
“The ones who did it can always rationalize their actions and even forget what they did. They can turn away from things they don’t want to see. But the surviving victims can never forget. They can’t turn away. Their memories are passed on from parent to child. That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.”
—Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Each quote addresses a similar theme: how the perpetrators forget, but the victims always remember, and how that remembering shapes the world. Yet they approach the topic in different ways. John le Carré illustrates his point by examining historical, world-altering events. He uses dialogue and describes the gestures of his characters to punctuate his ideas, and he ends by suggesting that, if we do not remember, then we are infinitely more vulnerable to the metaphorical “wolf at the door.”
Haruki Murakami, by contrast, uses far fewer words to illustrate the same idea. His sentences are less laden with imagery and description; they are merely vehicles to his conclusion that the world is “an endless battle of contrasting memories.”
Each author takes his own route, and each excerpt will connect with the reader in different ways. Such differences in expression are the essence of style. Writing styles showcase how a writer reaches their point, encompassing the totality of the author’s word choice, sentence structures, use of literary devices, etc. It is the gestalt of every decision, both conscious and unconscious, that the writer makes in the text.
What Authors Say About Writing Style
Before we move on, let’s illustrate this point about authors’ writing styles in another way: different quotes from authors on writing styles themselves.
- “Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage.” —Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield
- “When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.” —Blaise Pascal
- “The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules–that it is a living and breathing thing with something of the devilish in it–that it fits its proprietor tightly yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as seriously an integral part of him as that skin is. . . . In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a man, and cannot be anything else.” —H.L. Mencken
- “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.” —Katherine Anne Porter
- “Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.” —Robert Frost
- “Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” —Federico Fellini
- “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style.” —Jonathan Swift
- “The web, then, or the pattern, a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style.” —Robert Louis Stevenson
- “Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language.” —Cardinal John Henry Newman
- “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” —Stephen King
- “It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.” —P.D. James
Elements of Writing Styles
Every author makes key decisions about their writing, and those decisions build over time into a cohesive writing style. What decisions do they have to make? In other words, what are the elements of writing styles?
Creative writing styles are honed through a combination of the following:
- Word choice
- Economy and concision
- Literary devices
- Context and purpose
- The author’s location, time period, and influences
Let’s explore each element in detail.
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Elements of Writing Styles: Word Choice
Also called diction, word choice refers to the artistic decisions a writer makes in choosing one word over another, and how those decisions affect the meaning, mood, tone, and ideas conveyed to the reader.
Word choice refers to the artistic decisions a writer makes in choosing one word over another, and how those decisions affect the meaning, mood, tone, and ideas conveyed to the reader.
Take a look at the following two example sentences. Only one word has been changed in each sentence, and those words are synonyms, but the changed word has a huge impact on the way each sentence is read.
- The Union beat The Confederacy during the American Civil War.
- The Union subjugated The Confederacy during the American Civil War.
As you can see, changing “beat” to “subjugated” affects every part of the sentence. The sentence moves from neutral and informative to passionate and descriptive; the idea, once impartial, now comes across as heavily invested in the outcome of the Civil War. A word like “subjugated” transmits to the reader that the Union was extremely powerful, even suggesting that the Confederacy was a victim of the North.
Small details such as word choice can have huge impacts on writing styles. Another important element to consider is syntax.
Elements of Writing Styles: Syntax
Syntax refers to sentence structure—how rearranging the order of words impacts the meaning transmitted to the reader. It is closely related to diction, but where diction is concerned with the choice of words, syntax is concerned with the arrangement of those words, as well as the length and complexity of sentences.
Syntax is concerned with the arrangement of words, as well as the length and complexity of sentences.
Much of syntax is innately learned, especially to native English speakers. For example, an English sentence is typically constructed with the subject first, and then the verb, followed by the object of that verb. See below:
- The quick brown fox (subject) jumped (verb) over the lazy dog (object).
If the daring writer wanted to complicate this syntactical order, they might write “Over the lazy dog, the quick brown fox jumped.” Of course, such experimentations can prove dangerous, as the reader might misinterpret that construction, or read it as shallow or pretentious.
Nonetheless, paying close attention to the structure, length, and word order of sentences can allow writers to develop their writing styles. Here are some other ways one might experiment with syntax:
- Structure (active to passive): The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox.
- Length: The fox jumped over the dog. OR: The quick, sly, and daring fox jumped right over the lazy and motionless dog.
- Word order: The brown fox jumped quickly over the dog lying lazily.
Notice how each of these syntactical changes affect the rhythm, meaning, and style of the sentences. Some changes certainly worsen the effect of the sentence.
A final element of syntax is punctuation. Commas, colons, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods each have their own specific use in English grammar. How the author decides to use each punctuation mark contributes to the overall style of their sentences.
Elements of Writing Styles: Economy and Concision
All stylish writers know how to use economy and concision. They know how to use fewer words, not more, and they know how to make every word count.
There are certainly rules and guidelines for concise writing. The economic writer knows to:
- Avoid adverbs.
- Use strong, visual verbs.
- Employ prepositions sparingly.
- Only use adjectives when necessary.
- Stay inside the active voice, unless the passive is necessary.
- Provide only the important details.
Later in this article, we dive deeper into concision. Nonetheless, let’s demonstrate this key facet of writing styles.
Here’s a simple, effective sentence:
We careened from California to Maine.
The wordy writer has many reasons to make this sentence more complicated. Perhaps the reader does need more information. But, the writer might also be insecure about their own writing, or else they might think every detail needs to be ornate (a tactic called purple prose). Here’s the above sentence, written wordier. In parentheses are the rules broken from the list above.
We were driven (5) swiftly (1) and without (3) direction in (3) our little blue Chevy (4, 6), somehow (1) finding (2) our way from California to Maine.
Perhaps the little blue Chevy is important to the story. It does add some personality to the people in the car. Otherwise, this sentence is haphazard, conveying too much to the reader in too many words.
Elements of Writing Styles: Literary Devices
Literary devices are specific writing techniques that forge novel connections and possibilities in language. You are probably familiar with common devices, like metaphors and similes. However, there is a wide range of devices available to creative writers, from the hyperbole to the synecdoche, from the onomatopoeia to the paranomasia.
In any work of creative writing, literary devices are essential to both the author’s meaning and their writing style.
In any work of creative writing, literary devices are essential to both the author’s meaning and their writing style. Sometimes, the device is confined to a single sentence in the text. Other times, various elements of the writing—its plot, characters, and settings—act as metaphors for broader ideas and themes.
Here’s an example of a metaphor that’s daring, stylish, and effective:
“Love is so embarrassing. I bled in your bed. I’m sorry. I have built you a shore with all my best words & still, the waves.”
Out of Bound by Claire Schwartz
This is a striking metaphor, heartbreaking in its imagery. The speaker laments at the imperfectness of love and language: how, no matter how carefully and precisely a lover chooses the words they use to love another, those words are, inevitably, broken down by “the waves.” What do those waves represent? Perhaps the limits of language—the ever-present gap between what is spoken and what is understood. In the same way that love is modified by language, the shore is always modified by the waves.
Many stylistic decisions go into the construction of literary devices, including:
- Which devices are used.
- The images used to convey deeper meanings.
- The word choice and syntax of those devices.
Indeed, the construction of literary devices is closely related to syntax and word choice, but the way that the writer employs those devices and makes connections and comparisons is key to honing an author’s writing style.
To learn more, check out our articles on common literary devices and rhetorical devices.
Elements of Writing Styles: Context and Purpose
While an author’s writing style is the product of their own artistic integrity, some creative writing styles develop in relation to the context and purpose of the writing itself.
Some creative writing styles develop in relation to the context and purpose of the writing itself.
For example, an author might choose to write a murder mystery novel, a middle grade fiction book, and a historical account of the Sino-Japanese War. Each publication would have its own unique writing style, because the writing serves a different purpose in each book, and the author will have to write towards different audiences. We’ll explore this shortly when we look at the different types of writing styles.
In creative writing, the question of audience can matter a great deal. You would not want someone with a hard-boiled writing style to publish a romance novel in the same voice, nor would you expect a law critic to write poetry using the same word choice.
While audience should not define the author’s style and intent, it is a necessary consideration in the editing process before a work is published.
It is also important to note that there are different types of writing styles for different contexts. Let’s review those briefly.
Different Types of Writing Styles
In standard rhetorical analysis, there are four different types of writing styles: narrative, descriptive, persuasive, and expository. We mention a fifth style, the creative style, because certain decisions and elements are available to creative works that are not usually available to other writing styles.
Narrative Writing Styles
At its simplest, narrative is a synonym for storytelling. As such, narrative writing styles employ certain storytelling tactics to communicate a plot with characters, settings, and themes.
Narrative writing styles employ storytelling tactics to communicate a plot with characters, settings, and themes.
Here’s an example of a narrative writing style, which seeks to communicate the essential details for a reader to understand the story:
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.”
—Opening lines of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
These two paragraphs give us the essentials. We know that the narrator is a child with an unkind family (character), that they live somewhere bleak and chilly (setting), and that the speaker has been made to feel inferior to her peers (theme).
Narrative writing styles are commonly used in the following:
- Creative nonfiction
- Narrative poetry
- Legal writing
- Marketing and brand development
Descriptive Writing Styles
Descriptive writing seeks to evoke sensory experiences. This type of writing concerns itself with the effective use of imagery, including non-visual forms of imagery like sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and kinesthetic and organic images.
Descriptive writing seeks to evoke sensory experiences.
Here’s an example of a descriptive writing style, which uses imagery and other devices to reconstruct a particular sensory experience through language:
“The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate.”
—Patricia Hempl, excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter
The writer employs a variety of images, scents, and comparisons to describe the sensual intensity of the flower shop. Details of the shop’s setting, smells, and the narrator’s relationship to the shop itself combine to make this an effective, descriptive passage.
Descriptive writing styles are commonly used in the following:
- Creative nonfiction
- Medical writing
- Marketing and brand development
Persuasive Writing Styles
Persuasive writing wants to change your mind. By employing logic, argumentation, and various rhetorical strategies, persuasive writers seek to convince you that their argument or interpretation prevails.
Persuasive writing wants to change your mind.
Here’s an example of a persuasive writing style, which uses rhetorical strategies to convince you about a certain worldview:
“Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetual recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.”
—James Baldwin, excerpt from Giovanni’s Room
In addition to Baldwin’s lyrical prose style, key elements of this passage try to persuade the reader of the narrator’s worldview. “Garden of Eden” and “flaming sword” are strong visual metaphors, and setting up this worldview as a binary (people who remember or forget) encourages the reader to sort people into one of two categories. While persuasive writing styles usually come off as confident, the narrator’s admission that he doesn’t precisely know the answer to this conundrum helps humanize the conflict he’s debating. Certainly, this is a depressing worldview, and one which the reader is free to disagree with, but the strategies Baldwin takes in constructing this paragraph are certainly compelling.
Persuasive writing styles are commonly used in the following:
- Creative nonfiction
- Legal writing
Expository Writing Styles
Expository writing wants to tell you about something as neutrally as possible. The goal is to be informative: by conveying something with as little bias and interpretation, expository writing styles stick to the facts. Do note that bias is universal: it is nearly impossible for any text to remove itself from bias completely.
Expository writing wants to tell something as neutrally as possible.
Here’s an example of an expository writing style, which conveys facts in a linear and digestible paragraph:
“On June 13, 1910, Arthur James Balfour lectured the House of Commons on ‘the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt.’ These, he said, ‘belong to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the Isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire.’ He spoke with the authority of a long-time member of Parliament, former private secretary to Lord Salisbury, former chief secretary for Ireland, former secretary for Scotland, former prime minister, veteran of numerous overseas crises, achievements, and changes.”
—Edward W. Said, excerpt from Orientalism
This opening passage of Orientalism sets the scene factually: we learn the time period, some geopolitical issues, and a main actor in all of these events. Yes, the passage does play up the significance of Arthur James Balfour and his many accolades, but this, too, is expository description, letting the reader know exactly who and what we are dealing with.
Expository writing styles are commonly used in the following:
- Creative nonfiction
- Legal writing
Creative Writing Styles
Creative writing styles combine the previous four types: a creative writer can employ narrative, descriptive, persuasive, and expository strategies in their work. You may have noticed that creative genres, like fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, routinely show up under the categories of writing that employ the above four styles. This is because authors must employ a variety of strategies to tell effective stories.
Creative writers can employ narrative, descriptive, persuasive, and expository strategies in their work.
But, in addition to employing the previous four styles, creative writing also seeks to experiment and find new, artistic possibilities in language. Poetry is an obvious example, as the use of stanzas and line breaks affects how the language is read and interpreted. But there are also countless examples of experimentation in prose, from the use of stream of consciousness to the Oulipian n+7.
Here’s an example:
“I turned out the light and went into my bedroom, out of the gasoline but I could still smell it. I stood at the window the curtains moved slow out of the darkness touching my face like someone breathing asleep, breathing slow into the darkness again, leaving the touch. After they had gone up stairs Mother lay back in her chair, the camphor handker- chief to her mouth. Father hadn’t moved he still sat beside her holding her hand the bellowing hammering away like no place for it in silence When I was little there was a picture in one of our books, a dark place into which a single weak ray of light came slanting upon two faces lifted out of the shadow. You know what I’d do if I were King? she never was a queen or a fairy she was always a king or a giant or a general I’d break that place open and drag them out and I’d whip them good It was torn out, jagged out. I was glad.”
—Excerpt from The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
This is, of course, a highly literary and experimental piece of writing, but it demonstrates something distinct to creative writing styles. The italicized portions of text are streams of consciousness—moments where the reader has direct access to the unfiltered thoughts, images, and memories flowing through the character’s mind. Understanding these passages requires close attention to the text, as well as several re-reads. While creative writing styles can be far simpler than this, the point is that a creative writer takes great liberties to experiment with language, in ways distinct to creative writing, which seek to mine the wide varieties of the human experience.
Creative writing styles are commonly used in the following:
- Creative nonfiction
- Lyric essays
- Creative journalism
Elements of Writing Styles: The Author’s Location, Time Period, and Influences
Lastly, writers are undeniably influenced by their location, time period, and literary influences. For example, if you’ve ever read a poem or novel from Victorian Era England, you know that the Victorian writers (like the Brontës, Charles Dickens, or Percy Bysshe Shelley) often wrote in elaborate and flowery language. By modern standards, Victorian writing styles might seem overwrought; but, that style was influenced by the era’s appreciation for emotional intensity, as well as the tendency to pay writers per-word.
Writing Styles: Examples and Analyses
Let’s take a look at three writing styles examples. For each writer, we will examine how various stylistic strategies affect the overall mood and interpretation of the text, while also discussing that writer’s influences and likely intent. All examples come from published works of classic literature.
Ernest Hemingway’s Writing Style
Ernest Hemingway once wrote “A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous. The greatest writers have the gift of brilliant brevity, are hard workers, diligent scholars and competent stylists.” Hemingway’s writing style certainly lives up to this quote, as his words are often simple, direct, and unadorned.
Here’s an excerpt from his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.”Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“He was in despair.”
“How do you know it was nothing?”
“He has plenty of money.”
Hemingway’s writing style seeks to dispense the precise amount of information necessary for the reader, without any garnishment. Notice the details he provides: the exact time does not matter, only that “it was very late.” Notice, also, a similar pattern with the dialogue. People generally don’t speak in such clipped sentences, but the characters of this story speak to give just enough context for the story’s themes.
Additionally, the visual details, such as the dew settling the dust and the shadows of leaves against the electric light, evoke the sensation of a space that’s quiet and comforting, if also a little bit eerie.
Notice, also, the general lengths of the sentences. The first paragraph is built on longer sentences and clauses, which inevitably juxtaposes sensory details (an old man in the shadow of leaves cast by an electric light.) The effect of these sentences is that time feels slower, as the reader’s focus is on the kaleidoscope of details paused in this one moment in a quiet café.
Finally, pay attention to the lack of pretensity in Hemingway’s word choice. While the story itself deals with complex themes, including the question of nihilism, the language itself is simple, direct, and accessible.
Hemingway got his start in writing as a journalist, then as a short story writer, both of which certainly influenced his economic style. He famously coined the “Iceberg Theory,” which describes writing that focuses on surface-level details without explicitly analyzing underlying themes, rather implying those themes for the reader to interpret. Hemingway was also greatly influenced by World Wars I and II, and his writing style may have been a reaction to these wars, eschewing the flowery language of pre-war literature for a hardened, masculine style.
Toni Morrison’s Writing Style
A master of voice and character, Toni Morrison’s writing style borrows heavily from vernacular, from history, and from her own unique relationship to analogies and metaphors. Morrison frequently plays with sentence lengths and imagery, but her writing never fails to be compelling, lyrical, and delicious to read.
Here’s an excerpt from Recitatif, her only published short story:
My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s. People want to put their arms around you when you tell them you were in a shelter, but it really wasn’t bad. No big long room with one hundred beds like Bellevue. There were four to a room, and when Roberta and me came, there was a shortage of state kids, so we were the only ones assigned to 406 and could go from bed to bed if we wanted to. And we wanted to, too. We changed beds every night and for the whole four months we were there we never picked one out as our own permanent bed.It didn’t start out that way. The minute I walked in and the Big Bozo introduced us, I got sick to my stomach. It was one thing to be taken out of your own bed early in the morning—it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race. And Mary, that’s my mother, she was right. Every now and then she would stop dancing long enough to tell me something important and one of the things she said was that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean. So when the Big Bozo (nobody ever called her Mrs. Itkin, just like nobody ever said St. Bonaventure)—when she said, “Twyla, this is Roberta. Roberta, this is Twyla. Make each other welcome.” I said, “My mother won’t like you putting me in here.”
Both lyrical and conversational, Morrison’s style simply makes you want to read more. Pay attention to two things:
One, the lengths of these sentences. Morrison routinely switches from short sentences to longer ones, partially to emphasize important details in short sentences, and partially to keep the pace of the story engaging. The alternation of short and long sentences mirrors a conversational storytelling style.
Two, the childlike voice behind the narration. It is clear that the narrator is a child. Despite being directly stated, this fact is also obvious when certain elements of word choice are analyzed. Phrases like “smell funny” and “Big Bozo” clue the reader towards a speaker whose words and observations are that of a child.
One thing that’s absent from these paragraphs, but very much present in Morrison’s writing style, is the use of surprising comparisons (similes, metaphors, and analogies). This example comes later in “Recitatif”:
“I used to dream a lot and almost always the orchard was there. Two acres, four maybe, of these little apple trees. Hundreds of them. Empty and crooked like beggar women when I first came to St. Bonny’s but fat with flowers when I left.”
The simile “empty and crooked like beggar women” might be shocking to the reader, but it provides great insight into the personality of the narrator. This sentence is also ripe with foreshadowing, since the trees were “fat with flowers” when the narrator leaves St. Bonny’s.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Writing Style
One of America’s most influential writers, Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and fiction forged new possibilities in the written word. Poe’s writing is often dark, gothic, and tinged with insanity, and his style reflects the problems that haunt his protagonists. Notice how psychosis influences Poe’s writing style in this excerpt from “The Tell-Tale Heart:”
Poe adapts his style quite well to write a character who is clearly self-aggrandizing and obsessed with his own genius. The storytelling here has lots of repetition, such as “slowly—very, very slowly” and “cautiously-oh, so cautiously—cautiously” which makes the narrator sound in love with his own voice. And, it takes a while for the reader to understand what the narrator is doing, as his erratic behavior, like poking his head into the door for an hour, goes without a clear explanation.
Nonetheless, this writing is typical of Poe’s Gothic style. The use of words like “madman,” “midnight,” “vulture,” and “Evil Eye” give this story the grim moodiness characteristic of Poe’s writing. Additionally, the frequent use of em dashes and lengthy sentences propels the reader slowly, as we come to understand every minute detail that forms the totality of this character’s psychosis. This methodical, psychological writing style helps define Poe as a master of mystery and suspense.
Tips for Honing Your Own Author’s Writing Style
Writing styles develop with time, and there’s no singular thing any writer can do to hone their style. Rather, an attentiveness to language and a willingness to experiment are the best things you can do for yourself as you hone your author’s writing style. Nonetheless, here’s 7 pieces of advice for anyone who wants to write with style, flare, and confidence.
1. Creative Writing Styles: Experiment with Language and Syntax
Take risks in your writing. Be unconventional, and don’t always go for the expected word or phrase. Style doesn’t develop from playing it safe—it develops from making active decisions in the words you use to express your ideas.
What do we mean by taking risks? Here’s an example of a risky sentence, from poet Eduardo C. Corral: “Moss intensifies up the tree, like applause.”
This is a daring comparison: we don’t often think of moss “intensifying,” and so that verb already seems strange and risky. But then the moss itself is compared to applause, so now the visual cue of intensifying moss is being compared to intensifying sound. The product of this simile is that we see moss blooming and expanding across the tree, which makes this an effective and stylish sentence—but there’s a level of risk, faith, and skill involved in making this simile work.
Taking risks allows you to see what works and what doesn’t in your writing. So make bold comparisons! End your paragraphs with em-dashes! Try using four different languages in a single sentence!
Just be sure to review your work after and assess what does and doesn’t work for the reader. And, when you’re not sure what to do, try doing the complete opposite of what seems intuitive. You might find a short sentence works better than a long one, for example.
2. Creative Writing Styles: Experiment with Writing Forms
Creative writing styles often adapt to the form of the writing itself. For example, genre writing styles vary from genre to genre. You wouldn’t expect a writer of hard-boiled noir to have the same terse, simplistic style when writing romance fiction (although I would love to read that).
As you hone your writing style, experiment reading and writing in different forms. Pay attention to how the form demands you to make different stylistic decisions. The words you choose in a love sonnet will be different from the words you choose in a flash essay about your childhood. And, certainly, your sentence lengths will differ when you’re writing literary fiction versus speculative fiction.
Getting into the habit of making these stylistic decisions, and paying attention to those decisions, will help you create a mental framework for the ways you approach writing. Such is the nature of style development.
3. Creative Writing Styles: Consider Character
Character development is an essential part of fiction writing, and it will naturally affect the style you use to write. If you’re writing in first person or third person limited, then your protagonist’s personality will affect everything, because their worldview tinges the way you tell their story. Key observational details and thought processes from main characters naturally bleed into the style of the writing itself.
You can see this in action in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, is written from the third person limited point of view of Anthony Patch, an unambitious libertine whose personality is defined by wry cynicism and a rigid belief in the purposelessness of life. These personality traits often affect the storytelling, as the reader sees the world through Anthony’s eyes, and thus trudges through a lot of Anthony’s ironic commentary and disdain for others.
Fitzgerald’s next novel, The Great Gatsby, is completely different, both tonally and stylistically. Written from the first person point of view of Nick Carraway, an optimistic bond salesman who wants to immerse himself in the high society of New York’s nouveau riche. Much of the style is poetic and introspective, honing in on the creative chaos of the Jazz Age and the tragedy of the American Dream.
For your own writing, alter your style to reflect the traits of your characters. Style reflects personality, and the person narrating your fiction will certainly want to tell their story in their own way.
4. Creative Writing Styles: Omit Needless Words
While style can take many forms, one thing that all good author’s writing styles have in common is an economy of language. In other words, no word in good writing is excessive or unnecessary. To sharpen your own style, you must omit needless words.
What does that look like? There are two ways to omit needless words: striking out redundancies, and rewriting phrases.
Here’s two examples. First, let’s look at redundancy. A redundancy is when you communicate something multiple times without refining the meaning of your words. Here’s a redundant sentence:
“The girl vaulted over the large gray boulder.”
Nothing is explicitly wrong with this sentence, but several words are giving repeat information. You don’t need the word “over,” because to vault means to jump over something. And, you don’t need the word “large,” because a boulder is, by definition, large. Finally, most rocks are gray, and the word “gray” isn’t offering much useful detail.
A much cleaner sentence would simply be “the girl vaulted the boulder.”
Another example is to rewrite phrases. If you don’t think about your words, it’s easy to communicate something in 10 words when 2 will do. Here’s another example sentence:
“She worked many long hours in order to secure a trade deal with the company.”
God, doesn’t that just read like a corporate memo? It’s passively worded and nondescript. Isolate any phrase in this sentence, and it can be truncated into something much more straightforward. Be sure to avoid phrases like “in order to”—simply “to” will always suffice.
Here’s a cleaner sentence: “She hustled to secure the Nike trade deal.”
Lastly, some categories of words are better than others. Nouns and verbs are necessary for understanding the action of a sentence. Adjectives should be used sparingly, and only when that description is necessary for the reader. Adverbs, which modify verbs, should only be used when there isn’t a sharper verb. For example, “breathing heavily” is much better written as “panting.”
For more advice, check out our article on how to omit needless words.
5. Creative Writing Styles: Read Like a Writer
How do published writers write so well? What did they do to craft such artful sentences, effective plots, or in-depth characters? While you can certainly learn these tricks by taking a writing class, you can also learn them by reading like a writer.
Reading like a writer means paying attention to the construction of a piece of literature and thinking about why that writing works. We did a little bit of this when we examined the above writing styles examples. By examining the elements of writing styles—word choice, sentence structure, character and voice, etc.—we paid attention to what makes each excerpt an effective piece of writing.
Employ those same strategies in the work you read. If there’s an author you like or whose style you admire, pay attention to what makes that style effective. And don’t be afraid to emulate that style in your own work: writers often borrow from each other’s styles and strategies to hone their own voice.
6. Creative Writing Styles: Study Poetry
The writing styles tips in this article primarily pertain to prose writers. But, whether you’re writing poetry, prose, or some secret third thing, reading poetry is essential to honing style.
Poets are masters of language. They know how to build tension, pacing, and rhythm in their sentences. They know how to make that tension correspond with what they’re writing about. They manipulate vowel sounds, constants, tools like rhyme and meter, and a whole other host of poetic devices to move their readers.
Writing poetry is its own separate challenge. Prose writers don’t need to write poetry to master their writing styles. But they absolutely should study poetry. What makes language beautiful? What makes a poem concise? How does the flow of a sentence accentuate its meaning? Asking these questions and listening to the poets will help you experiment in your own pages.
7. Creative Writing Styles: Write Every Day
The key to honing your style is to write every day. A diligent writing practice will train your brain to think about language and make continuous stylistic choices in your work. Even if you can only manage 10 minutes a day on a writing project, or even if you just keep a writing journal, the simple practice of putting thoughts to words and words to pages will naturally sharpen the personality you put into your writing.
Hone Your Own Writing Style at Writers.com
One last piece of advice on writing styles is to read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. You can find a free copy of it online here. Most of the advice in this book has remained true in the many decades since its publication, and while rules are certainly made to be broken, you should understand the rules first before breaking them.
Want clear, direct feedback on your writing styles and the other elements of your work? Take a look at any of the upcoming creative writing classes at Writers.com! Our instructors are masters of the craft and know how to sharpen your words so that they zing across the page.
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