Write it now: OK, what is ‘good’ writing style?

Welcome back to ‘Write It Now’, an ongoing series on the how and why of writing.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)
Ernest Hemingway – helped popularise today’s trend for plain vanilla simplicity as device for creating emotional effect. ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

I’m relaunching the series today with the first of several posts on writing style. What style is, why we need it, what it’s about, and how to do that hardest of all writing tasks – getting that style under control.

The key to style is control. Specific styling is a matter of personal taste, though prevailing general styles change with time. Different genres or writing fields also demand particular stylings, within wider frameworks of what readers expect – and it is up to the author to be able to meet that.

Just now, as we roll into the second decade of the twenty-first century (where DID the last third of the twentieth go?) what we call ‘good’ writing is increasingly informalised, increasingly immediate. Yet for writers hoping to publish and earn money from their work, there’s a need to be sharp.

Don’t forget, half humanity is out there in web-land, and a chunk of those want to be writers. For most, that translates as ‘novelist’, though writing is a much broader field. But that’s by the by. No matter how good you are, somebody out there will be better. The bar has been raised. The onus is on writers to be good, if they are to be heard above the noise. And when it comes to style that means being on the ball.

Why? Because style is one of the tools authors need in order to take the reader on an emotional journey.

Charles Dickens, 1858. Public domain, from Wikimedia commons.
Charles Dickens, 1858. Doyen of nineteenth century style. Public domain, from Wikimedia commons.

All writing has to do this, non-fiction included. Everything – articles, letters, blog posts. All of it.

Good styling these days doesn’t mean riddling the text with adjectives. Usually it involves a mix of short and long sentences, and a fair application of grammatical rules. Breaking the rules can help give what I call ‘eyebrows’ to that style, but make sure you know the rule first, and why it’s used, because only then can you control the rule-breaking – and control your style. It’s the control that counts. More on that later.

These days, good styling is also about the gaps. Hemingway showed us the way, decades ago; he was a master at it, and one of the creators of the current trend towards sparsity and informality. The power of his writing came from what he didn’t say, not what he did. And the trick was knowing what to leave out.

That’s still true today.

Good styling is also about being unobtrusive – of which, more next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: fun science geekery, more writing tips – and, well, just more…

15 thoughts on “Write it now: OK, what is ‘good’ writing style?

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the trick being to leave things out. I hate when I read a passage and everything (including the stuff I would have been happy to leave to my active imagination) is laid out by the author. Lead me there, then let me be there for a while.


  2. Really like the idea of rule breaking giving one’s writing “eyebrows.” As you say, one must know the rule to break it but the imagery of eyebrows is just brilliant. As always, looking forward to more of the series.



    1. I think it’s a great image. Frank Zappa used the term to describe some of the un-notatable requests he made of his musicians but I think the idea of an ‘indefineable extra’ applies to any of the arts, and to me it becomes a metaphor – a word – for the indefineable; a way of giving a name to the notion of ‘concept’ -something that cannot be given as instruction, whether it be in music, writing or any of the arts – yet which makes it distinct. And it has always seemed to me that this is what creative rule-breaking amounts to in writing.


  3. Finding one’s style, one’s voice is a tedious task. It’s like finding treasure in a jungle. Chop your way through.


  4. This is really good stuff. I’m learning a lot from it. I love that you hold up Hemingway as an example. I’d love to write that well. Looking forward to more on this subject.


  5. MAtt, you know I enjoy your posts. However, style and voice are two aspects that I am ‘almost’ ignoring at this point in my writing. Notice, i said almost. I’m trying to concentrate on just writing so I can see what my natural voice sounds like. In past posts, you have discussed purposefully trying to write in the style of.a famous author. And, I understand the reasoning behind it. I guess my thought is to find my natural voice first. Then I can experiment with the understanding of my baseline. Does that make sense? Am I looking at this backwards?


    1. Seems to me you’re doing exactly what’s needed! Style is all about having and finding your own voice – to do which I figure it’s necessary to understand the mechanisms. I’ll explain more of my take on that as this series goes on (it’s basically several thousand words broken down into blog-size chunks)..

      I think the principle is true for all the arts – last year I saw Rick Wakeman in concert (Wakeman + Steinway + a lot of VERY funny anecdotes and lame jokes) during which he explained that he’d been taught at the Royal Schools how to write music ‘in the style of’ as a device for understanding how composition worked, and so finding his own musical voice. This was intro for a nursery rhyme mash-up ‘in the style of’ Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Mozart etc. Hilarious.

      There are other techniques too, and I think the same holds true for writing, in its own way. This is what I’ll be exploring in the next few weeks.


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