Write it now part 31: the style and the rhythm

One of the distinct skills of writing is styling. Styling is key to any writing because it gives identity – the fingerprint of an author’s writing, unique and distinctive – and obvious, to those who know what to look for.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s from that sort of analysis that we know William Shakespeare’s works weren’t written by Shakespeare, but by another playwright with the same name.

Joking aside, it was from a statistical analysis of word pattern and distribution that one study associated ‘Robert Galbraith’ with J K Rowling, shortly before she was revealed as the actual author. But you don’t need a computer to analyse style; it’s a long-practised human art.  If you’ve read enough material – know enough about the mechanics of written English – it’s not difficult to figure out whether a particular author wrote something.

The reasons why that’s possible run to the heart of styling as an art. It’s the author’s voice. It is what makes their writing distinctive – what makes us want to read it.

Authors who can control style usually leap to the top of the game. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, is instantly recognisable for his sparse descriptions and short sentences mixed with long flow-of-thought passages. Pushing deeper, the secret was what he left out – forcing the reader to work and drawing them through the book. Part of that was content, but part was also due to style – showing us how the two work together. He did it quite consciously.

That is the key strength of styling; it integrates with the rest of writing.

Problem is, many authors don’t consciously know how to control it. Not really. That’s not too surprising either; it isn’t really taught properly. Well it is, but not enough, to my mind. Creative writing courses always focus mainly on other matters – content, characters, story. Non-fiction mainly focuses on structure.

And yet style runs to the heart of writing. The best structure in the world means little if it’s let down by incompetent styling. Take Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said). A fantastic novel, brilliantly structured – and let down, as far as I am concerned, by dismal research, over-use of melodrama, and – most heinously – styling of mind-numbing ineptitude.

It takes practise to get styling right. Lots of practise.

I’m going to be looking at styling soon, in this series – what it is, how to control it, and how to make it work for you.

Do you look to create a specific styling in your writing? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: more science, more writing tips, more humour and…well, just more…

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18 comments on “Write it now part 31: the style and the rhythm

  1. JWilliams says:

    Love this, a lot of insight! I am a fan of all the author’s listed here. I also like the style of Leann Sweeney and Sam Gosling you should check them out, and my blog of course :)

  2. Christi says:

    I definitely want to create a specific style I’m my writing, but it’s hard to pin down. And you’re right — much of style is subconscious and can be hard to control. Thanks for sharing these fantastic insights!

    • Glad to be of assistance. Style is one of the hardest things a writer has to master, definitely – not least because that aspect of control is one that can only come with practise. More on that soon.

  3. I’m inching towards a style, but I’ve a ways to go. That’s okay, for finding my style is half the fun.

  4. kokkieh says:

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this: http://iwl.me/ You paste your writing in the text box and it tells you to which published author your style compares most closely. I got several hits, from Cory Doctorow to Agatha Christie and even Tolkien. I clearly haven’t found my own style yet, but it’s one hell of an ego boost.

    I’m reading Brown’s Inferno at the moment. Previously with his novels I hadn’t known about style, but with this one I’m noticing it.

    Looking forward to the coming posts.

    • I have seen that site – tried some samples and discovered that I am supposed to have the same fiction style as James Joyce, which is annoying because I was deliberately emulating someone else’s style at the time… :-) (I smile, but it’s true…) From what I understand of the algorithms behind it, the site is seriously intended, still a bit random – the next few paras from the same story apparently read stylistically like ‘Stephen King’, and I can guarantee I didn;’t change my writing style. My thought – and this isn’t entirely intended wryly – is that it’s not so much that you write like them, as they happened to write like you. Everybody’s going to have a particular voice – whether they like it or not – and to me the key test is whether it’s comfortable for the writer, and comfortable for their readers.

      • Thanks for that website, it was fascinating using it. I’ve always suspected that my style of writing was more old fashioned (I tend speak that way too, and I have no idea why). My result came up with Mary Shelley ( author of Frankenstein). However, that is REALLY old fashioned lol

        • Mary Shelley was a good author though! Who else has written a novel that was still being made into movies nearly 200 years later?

          • True, but have you tried putting in a couple of paragraphs of text in for a second time? I’m not sure what to make of the analysis, as I did it a second time, and it came back with H.G. Wells.

            I think that what it does get right is analyze if a writer is ‘old world’ or ‘more modern’, it seems fairly consistent regarding that for me. Fascinating though isn’t it? You are spot on regarding the identification of style. I must say your blog is one of my favourite on wordpress by a long way. You have fascinating blogs Matthew!

          • I did – and it reported a different ‘writing style’ from the first. All good fun though, and I think we can often learn from these things in unexpected ways. Thanks for your kind thoughts about my blog – very much appreciated!

          • Just saying what many people already think about your super blog Matthew. :)
            It is all good fun as you say and I am wondering if perhaps a book is like a musical symphony, different rhythms in different parts – but if taken as a whole etc a style is identified. Today’s blog looks very interesting too, I look forward to reading that after a cup of tea. All the best.

  5. At this point, I’m still trying to find my own voice in my writing, let alone control it. I’m looking forward to your posts on it. They should be very interesting. But, no pressure on you. ;-)

    • Aaargh! Mind paralysed now… :-) Actually I’ve got a fair few things to cover about style & probably starting up on it Sunday after next, with a bit of luck – earthquakes etc permitting.

  6. I often wonder if we can imagine and strive for a style with intention, by reading widely the kind of work we respect and admire. I know I strive to be visual in my writing, to make the reader see in their own mind what is happening, to invoke their imagination and I know whose writing really stimulates me in that way, but I am not sure whether we can create that or whether for example constant practise as with any activity eventually brings out our own unique style, whatever that is going to be.

    It is a fascinating subject, one that seems to me to have a bit of the magic in it.

    • It’s the magic we have to go for – the indefineable extra that slides in every so often. I think personal style is a mix of many factors. Including direction, experience, control and skill. But it is the magic extra that makes the difference, and which is most elusive.

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