It’s all a matter of style

Today I want to talk about the thing that sets authors apart. Style. To me, style is more than just a choice of words or tone. It’s a tool – a means by which the writing is shaped and pitched to create a response in the reader.

What, I can hear you saying. What? Writing reduced to technique again? Wright, what are you on about? What about the creativity.

Sure. I’ll blog about that too, later. Just now I’m talking about using style to control the way the creativity is received. To make writing do what you want. Try an experiment. Listen to Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’. He was consciously going out of his way to create a response – at times, to make people think of particular colours. It was his compositional style that did it,Colour, mood, feeling, impressions, bohemianism, ennui (especially after a wild night out at the Moulin Rouge). The sound of turn-of-the-twentieth-century France.

The same is true of writing. Style makes creativity –  good ideas, your feelings – translate into a response in the reader. All writers do it, sometimes consciously, and everybody has a different approach. I thought I’d share mine.

1. Who’s the audience, and what do they want?
I always start by thinking about who I’m writing for? What do I want them to get out of my work? Happy? Sad? Angry? Provoked? Informed? If the latter, what sort of informed? This is a huge, huge topic. One way I learned about it was to write. Every day, even though I threw a lot of it away. Best advice I ever had, given to me years ago, and it works. Now I give that tip to everybody, whether they ask or not.

2. Try to make the audience work by leaving holes.
One of the rules for all styles. I don’t explain every last detail. Make readers work for it – this gets the imagination working – captures them, draws them forwards into your work. This isn’t original to me. I pinched the idea from Hemingway. What I add to that is that it works for non-fiction too. Think Dava Sobel (fantastic, fantastic author).

3. Show, do not tell.
Again, a universal styling rule, and one is so old it’s a cliché. But it’s true. The issue is how. My method is (a) avoid adjectives, and (b) tell the story from a particular viewpoint. Works for both fiction and non-fiction. I’ll show you. Here’s an opening paragraph:

“Roger watched the clouds rolling in, remembering cheerful Sunday afternoons sitting before the parlour fire while rain beat across the windows. He shivered.”

Every word counts here to create the impression. What sort of clouds do you think are rolling up? When might the story set – and where? And what is Roger’s background? Did he shiver from the clouds, or because of memory? Suddenly, you want to know more.

Or you could do this:

“Roger was watching the black thundery clouds coming up. He had not had a good life. His father had died when he was seven and his younger brother was five. This had left its mark on his character, though he did not know it. They had been brought up by their mother until they had been forced out of the house with its comfortable parlour. The clouds brought a cold wind that made him shiver.”

Lots more words. But what does it really say? Yes, we learn more about Roger’s background. But so what? It doesn’t draw a reader in – not like the first version.

4. Less is better.
A while back I totted up the number of words I’ve published professionally in books and magazines – comes to over 2,000,000. Not including this blog, which I don’t get paid for. And all of my books had to reach contracted word lengths. However – and despite  occasional Twitter ‘writing sprint’ challenges – I don’t think writing is a race to reach particular word counts in certain times. Sometimes these spurts are a handy prod for  actually getting words down. And yes, a book must have a certain length (about 90-100,000 words for a typical commercial novel). But that can be controlled with structure. Writing to maximise words usually leads to dismal writing, because it’s hard to avoid padding, usually with adjectives.

When it comes to choosing the specific words, I don’t over-write, and I don’t use adjectives if I can avoid them. Why? Makes the reader work – their mind fills in the gap. The doyen of that approach, for me, was Isaac Asimov. One critique often levelled at him was that he had ‘no’ style. His writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – was utterly unadorned, plain vanilla. Actually, that was the point. He wrote stuff that was unobtrusive, flowing, a joy to read. Nothing got between you and the emotion.

So there you have it.Next time – other ways of setting the tone with style – using Tolkien’s stylistic wanderings as examples. (Hey – I’ve got to, they’re gonna launch The Hobbit in my town – I ate at the sushi train just 100 metres from the launch cinema last Wednesday…) Check back in a couple of days.

Later still I might talk about hard boiling. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts and tips for style?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

6 thoughts on “It’s all a matter of style

  1. As far as 4, I like word sprints and so forth just because they get me to sit down and do the work. But I dislike when people do too many things simply to pad word count. During last year’s NaNoWriMo there was was actually a thread about ‘dirty tricks’ to use including putting in long quotes from other texts and giving characters three part names they must always go by. While either could be helpful as a one off if it leads to some inspiration to put in more meaningful words, if I were doing those things I’d want to edit them out in the revised version, and then I’d end up with a novel shorter than the already short goal of 50k words. Stories should be about their content, whether it takes 1000 words (of fewer) to tell it or 100,000 (or more).


  2. please talk about hard-boiling. One day, I will write the story of Further Perouse, my femme fatale character, who, when she walks in, has ‘the look of a dame who’s done too many things, too many times’.


    1. Them hard boiled books, they look like the sort of book that lives hard, plays hard, and ends up in some trash can alley down on its luck wondering what happened to the good times, like some guy I knew once – name escapes me, might have been Sam or Spade or something, but that’s life, ain’t it.

      I really must put a post together on that style!


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