There’s no question that author writing style is integral to their wider brand. It’s not the only ingredient, but certainly one of the main components.
Well known writers inevitably carry a distinctive style – a voice – that marks their writing. And this is seldom an accident. Hemingway, for instance – whose styling helped set twentieth century writing styles generally on their way – worked at it.
The problem is achieving that end point – keeping those pesky words under control. For some authors styling is like fly-away hair; it seems to have a mind of its own.
Getting from ‘words that just came out that way’ to ‘words that come out the way I want them to’ – in other words, ‘finding your voice’ – is one of the major steps an author has to take. It isn’t something that happens overnight. There is also the point that different forms of writing require different stylings; a novel demands different style, for example, from a feature article or a book review. An author’s distinctive ‘voice’ must also be translatable across the likely requirements – retaining that characteristic form, but adapted to the specifics of a particular writing form such as a short story, novella, novel, feature article, review, essay, or whatever. That’s where the control comes in that I was discussing last week.
Some authors never get there. And no, I don’t mean Dan Brown. I recall once reviewing a book by a historian with 40-year career – and the work was competent enough, historically. As writing, though, it was a choking mass of wooden academic-speak; the styling, such as it was, emerged only as an accidental by-product. Actually, the book was so incompetently written the author couldn’t even get the tenses right. I was surprised the publishers hadn’t subbed it, but there it was in black-and-white.
The reality is that styling is like any other learned skill, and one that does not automatically arrive. It is a difficult skill to learn, but it is one that should be learned, and it is one that must be learned.
How difficult? True mastery of style is ‘unconscious competence’, the ability to mould words as desired into any form. It is one of the points that differentiates the ‘unconsciously competent’ – the expert writers who have paid their 10,000 hour/million word dues – from the rest.
Call it ‘making words part of your soul’.
Today’s doyen of the art, to my mind, is J K Rowling, who has complete control of her words. Look at the way she carefully styled the Harry Potter books for increasing reading ages – a degree of fine control over her writing pitch that is simply stunning.
Learning how to get that control is one of the key writing skills authors must have. And I’m going to explain how it’s done in the next few weeks.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up this week: more writing posts, history and some fun geekery