Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...
Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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13 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

  1. So interesting! When I think of Rick Wakeman, I think of the genius behind the keyboards for Yes. I even featured Wakeman’s keyboard solo in a story: http://momusnews.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/agility-trials-friday-fictioneers/

    I like the idea of this technique. I do this once in a while. Most of the time I want to write like Ray Bradbury, but never quite manage it. He’s another genius who can’t easily be duplicated. While writing for writing challenges I don’t even try his style, not enough words available. Although, I do attempt the quirky styles of Harlan Ellison and Robert Sheckley, two humorous scifi writers who inspired me from an early age. Now that you bring it up, I’ll try imitating styles more often!

    1. Wakeman was essential to Yes! When I went to the solo concert there was at least one guy in the audience with a Yes T-shirt on. Curiously, his son Oliver now does keyboards for that band…and I saw an interview with him in which he was explaining how he had to play keyboards ‘in the style of’ the band’s prior keyboardists – including his dad. They were quite distinctive.

      True, too, of writers. I did try once to emulate Bradbury – very, very difficult.

  2. In my earlier days I would try to mimic other styles, to capture their essence, and though I moved on, their legacy remains a faint shadow upon my work.

    1. It’s the moving on that counts, once the ability to ‘write like author X’ is mastered! A lot of it, I think, is that moment when you think ‘hey, THAT’S how they did it’. An ‘aha’ moment.

  3. Hi Matthew, thanks for sharing this on my http://www.facebook.com/BlogtrainerUK page. I think you raise some interesting points. However, I have to say, content is king to me and always comes first. I study structure and style afterwards and make the appropriate adjustments. That may be because I am predominantly a non-fiction writer. As I am quirky and unconventional, would you expect anything else?

    1. I wouldn’t expect anything else!🙂 Quirky is good. Content is the flip-side of style and structure and just as essential to writing. It’s possible, in academia, to produce something that contains only style and structure – and nobody notices the missing content. This has actually happened – Alan Sokal did it with a paper in post-modern style. It was meaningless, but nobody noticed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair – and I believe since there have been a lot of similar efforts. I am not sure it would work with fiction. And personally I prefer actual content, of course!

      1. Interesting. Surely you can’t have one without the other. To style and structure something in ‘writing’, would be the writing itself, whether is be comprehensible or not.

        1. It’s all writing, but it’s apparently possible to write something that merely presents the appearence of having meaning and does not, in fact,have useful content. I suspect the various efforts to submit academic papers that do this have been done with the intention of pointing out the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ pretension of that environment.

          1. As Shakespeare says – Nothing will come of nothing – speak again! Those papers must be contrived to mean nothing, so mean something from that very notion. It’s one of those mind blowing concepts I think, that your brain tape can run out about, yet never stop. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yes, I agree that writing “in the style of” is quite valuable. In the mid 80s, I immersed myself in Joan Didion’s writing–I was also teaching at the time–my journals reflected her style. She, too, makes the reader work. Her two memoirs–Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking–are perhaps not as crisp as her earlier writing but still that inimitable Didion style.

    Again, Matthew, a fine, practical post on a writing fundamental that most overlook, I think.
    Karen

    1. To me the ‘style of’ exercise is quite crucial for the lateral insights it gives into one’s own writing – a tool that adds to the layers of control an author needs. I’m coming at it from a music perspective (I spent longer formally learning music than writing, weirdly) but I think the principles apply to any of the arts.

  5. I have tried this on several occasions and can’t seem to get it right. It is good practice though and it does make me thionk about my own voice as I work on my WIP>

    1. It’s the thinking about your own style that counts! Writing precisely like others is incredibly hard. Apparently the people Churchill hired to help write his mammoth history of the Second World War had contests within themselves to see who could get closest to the great man’s inimitable style. Churchill still edited them…

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