A question of style

I do not write here as I do in my novels. Here I indulge my taste for neologisms, for bad puns, for annoying alliteration and all those other little stylistic tics that would drive you crazy if they were to appear in a novel. I have a different voice here from the one I use to construct my stories.

Style is possibly the most difficult thing to define in writing. It’s not the words you put on the page but the way you get them down. Except… it is the words too. If you’ve ever got anything down on the page then you’ve got a style. Just not necessarily a good one.

Confused?

Well, cheer up. It’s impossible not to develop a style. Style is just a combination of several different factors and the way they interact:

• Word choice

Simple or complex? Blunt or flowery? It’s really as simple (or complex) as that.

• Word order

‘They’re not the same thing’ vs ‘The same thing they are not’. Same words, same meaning – but a different effect. One is flat and straightforward and draws no attention to itself. The other can be – depending on context – playful, arch, or just bloody annoying.

• Sentence/paragraph length

Obviously this should vary, partly to avoid monotony and also to create different effects, but you’ll find that each author has a tendency for short or long sentences. Which leads us on to…

• Punctuation

I’ve a weakness for semi-colons. Love the buggers, I do. Most of my sentences are short, but I spice things up with rambling, poetic(er) sections with clauses and sub-clauses and even brackets. Punctuation is, perhaps, the greatest definer of style, which is why I’m totally nonplussed when I meet authors who say that they’re really bad at it and don’t seem to care. To me, that’s like saying ‘I’m a bit crap but that’s no big deal’.

Style varies according to what effect you’re trying to get across. My voice in this blog is more like my natural conversational voice. This blog is, after all, meant to be fun; often, when I write this, I’m playing. I’m writing with a smile, trying to satisfy myself as much as I’m trying to enlighten or entertain you, the reader. It’s possible that this just makes me an arse, in which case congratulations! You’re saved the bother of actually meeting me.

Style is also about omission as much as it is about what you put in. Missed words, unusual syntax – they shape the feel of the read. Take that ‘Just not necessarily a good one’ from the second paragraph: you all know that was ungrammatical, a sentence fragment. But I chose (without any real thought) to omit the object. This is part of my style. I also have the habit of starting sentences with conjunctions: ‘or,’ ‘but,’ or most especially ‘and’. I’ve got the idea that this creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and I think by and large it works. But this is something that I used to do a lot more, and still end up cutting a lot of these through successive drafts. I once defended this technique with the cry of ‘Style!’ – and I was right. But stylistic tics like this are best used sparingly. Otherwise they scream out to the reader. They scream ‘amateur.’

The good news is that you don’t have to do anything special to develop a style of your own. You’ve already been fully inculcated by the books you’ve read and are reading. You’re critique group (you have one of those, right?) will tell you without prompting where you’ve crossed the line into arseishness. Style simply comes from writing: from getting the words down on page, regularly and in abundance. You need to make mistakes.

I’m desperately trying to avoid the old saw ‘you need to know the rules in order to break them’. It’s not quite true; you can sidestep the process and trust to instinct, although that’s a high-risk strategy – you may be called out at any moment. You certainly don’t need to read grammar-primers – I’ve read them for you, and I couldn’t make much of them. But it helps. The better you understand convention the easier it is to manipulate.

Certainly don’t fall into the trap of taking only one source for your inspiration. A mentor is a great thing. We all have our literary idols. But – and I can say this on any subject – the only way to round your style is to read as widely as possible and get as many different feedback-sources as you can.

And never trust a man who writes one-sentence paragraphs.

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