Essential writing skills: giving your style eyebrows

One of my favourite composers, Frank Zappa, used to refer to the interesting add-ons in his music as ‘eyebrows’. The unexpected bits that make you sit up and listen.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers' walk.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers’ walk.

It’s true for writers too. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s well worth repeating. When you style your work, eyebrows are important. That doesn’t mean adding a writing gimmick (yes, Franz Kafka, I’m talking about YOU and your woeful dereliction of commas) but it does mean keeping the content interesting. Making it spark.

That spark flows from both the style, the content and the intent of your writing. But today I’m going to focus just on the stylistic part. My three key guidelines are:

1. Vary sentence lengths. A few short staccato sentences followed by a long one often works. Hemingway was a master at it – he’s often thought of as the ‘short sentence guy’, but actually he also wrote very long compound sentences, often a string of short phrases expressing the emotions of a character.

2. Content flows into the process: include a detail that stands out. This works for fiction and non-fiction alike.

3. Vary your vocabulary. Most books are written with a vocabulary of a few thousand words. But English has over a million available. Again, this doesn’t mean digging through the Thesaurus for the most obscure word you can find – instead, locate one that works with your style. It might be quite common.

All of this devolves to keeping the writing lively, interesting and well-paced – to holding the interest of the reader who, of course, you captured with the punchy first sentence…didn’t you… (OK, time to go back and revise that one now).

More writing stuff tomorrow.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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8 comments on “Essential writing skills: giving your style eyebrows

  1. yuliyakl says:

    Thank you for the original advice! I especially enjoyed the “vocabulary” suggestion. Too many writing manuals nowadays suggest writing with as few variations in language as possible. Your versions gives hope.

  2. jjspina says:

    Thank you for the helpful and insightful tips.

  3. Using sentence length to mirror the action also works. As does, using white space to control pacing of paragraphs. There are so many tools, I need a bigger toolbox!

    • Indeed – and those tools can be adapted in so many ways, too. I guess new tools also keep arriving, as the language changes and – maybe more particularly – as culture keeps re-framing the way we write.

  4. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I love that term “eyebrows”– a unique way of looking at writing. It fits quite well when you think of all the different positions you can get your eyebrows into.

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