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Developing Your Literary Style

What is style, anyway; and in just what style
do you normally write ... do you know?

by D. J. Herda

At first glance, one might expect the word, "style," to be difficult to define.  But, like so many things taken at first glance, that's simply not so.  Take this definition of style from no less a revered authority than The Chicago Manual of Style, itself. 

"The word style means two things to an editor.  The first meaning is that implied in the title A Manual of Style.  Publishers refer to style in this sense as house style or press style--rules regarding the mechanics of written communication ... Authors more often think of style in its other sense, as a way of writing, of literary expression.  Editors are of course also aware of this meaning of style when they undertake the second, nonmechanical, process of editing."

Got that?  In other words, Editors most often think of style as how to make all of the copy they're preparing for publication conform to certain in-house standardized formats; i.e., how to abbreviate the 50 states ("Neb." versus "NB") when to hyphenate and when to combine two words into one ("free-lance" versus "freelance"), when to use numerals and when to spell out numbers ("12" versus "twelve"), and so forth.  A good example is in the word, "nonmechanical," used in the paragraph above.  While The Chicago Manual of Style chooses to make the word non-hyphenated, the Microsoft spelling checker used to check this very "Writing Tips"  article rejects that interpretation in favor of the hyphenated style of the word, "non-mechanical."

While that's certainly something for an author to keep in mind when writing for a specific publication (editors are not likely to look kindly on a manuscript where every other word needs a style change to conform to their in-house styles), we're concerned here with the more "authorly" use of the word, style; i.e., expression.

In that sense, I define style as something like this: "The way in which an author chooses to put words together in order to depict an idea or a concept."

Take a look at these two very different literary styles.  First:

"Jack, upset with himself for not having stood up to the bully who had been goading him into a fight, chose to back down."


"Jack was upset with himself for not having had the tenacity to stand up to his adversary.  Bullies, he knew all too well, needed to be met with the type of response that they understood best--brute force.  Only by meeting force with force (and all bullies, he realized, used force to instill fear into the quivering hearts of their quarrel-less quarries) could he ever hope to prevail.  Yet, for one reason or another, he wasn't up to the task, wasn't willing to respond in kind.  Or, perhaps, he had learned another way."

The first example of literary style is terse and to-the-point.  There are few wasted words.  The second example is more flowery, introspective, "literary."  (Hey, use literary alliteration such as "the quivering hearts of their quarrel-less quarries," and we're talking literary!)  See the difference?  Now the question: what is your style?

Do you normally write short, sweet, and to-the-point?  Or are you more likely to expand upon a concept, spilling out everything in your heart and soul into your passages?  Admittedly, there are more literary styles around than fishes in the sea.  Remember our definition ... The way in which an author chooses to put words together in order to depict an idea or a concept.  Since no two people think alike, no two people write alike (although they might write similarly).

It's important to know what your primary literary style is so that you can project beforehand whether or not that style will be suitable for a particular audience (most notably, book or magazine readers and editors).  If you know in advance that your literary style is not suited to a particular market, you'll either have to pass on trying to sell anything to that market or change your style for that particular piece (everyone is capable of writing in different styles--see this month's "Writing Exercise" for more on that).

Most writers breaking into print haven't yet developed a specific style, so they emulate the style of another, more successful writer ... it's only human nature.  We want to be successful; we admire X Writer; so we copy X Writer's style.  The more to which we expose ourselves, the more literary styles we come to admire, and the more we tend to emulate.  Finally, after copying the styles of two or ten or fifty or five hundred authors, we evolve our literary styles into something unique to ourselves.  Still, when analyzing styles, we can see that they break down into several very basic categories.  Our primary style is either:

Terse (short and to-the-point)
Flowery (embellished with often large passages of descriptive prose)
Poetic (tending to include a great deal of rhyme and alliteration)
Stream-of-consciousness (mirroring in writing what the brain is thinking)
Journalistic (just the facts, ma'm--Who, What, When, Where, and Why)

As writers grow in literary proficiency, they often combine different literary styles within a single work.  They may do so to keep their readers on their toes ("Hey, this guy is deeper than I thought!")  Or they may simply be mirroring the wide diversity of the different characters in their work.  One character may speak in dialogue that is terse and tinted with scientific techno-babble while another may soliloquy poetic.  And that's another good reason for understanding--and being able to write in--different literary styles.

Your hard-nosed editor/reporter character shouldn't talk in the same style as the retired school teacher of 53 years.  Your rebel-without-a-cause shouldn't speak in  the same style as the career politician.

Just how do you decide what your primary literary style is?  Take a couple of pages of your "most-you" writing, sit down, and analyze it with the list above in mind.  Go paragraph-by-paragraph, if need be, and define each one, jotting its label down in the margin.  Then tally up the numbers.  Or ask a trusted friend to read something of yours and tell you which of the above styles he thinks you fit into.

And remember: once you know what your primary literary style is, and once you learn to write in other styles, you're well on your way to being able to write anything ... for anyone!



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