Essential writing skills: the importance of styling

I’ve always argued that to write quickly and well means getting the fundamentals right first – the structure – and worrying about the style later. It’s a technique that’s really only come into its own with the advent of word processors – though, and without any sense of paradox, I also believe it’s important to at least plan using pen and paper, because of the way that different thought processes emerge.

Wright_Typewriter2Once you’ve got that draft, of course, the issue is that styling – and, in its own way, that’s as critical a part of the whole process as the structure. So what do I mean by styling? This is the front end of the writing; the way in which an author adds meaning, nuance and their characteristic ‘voice’. It can change the way the work is received – can drive readers off, or pull them in, depending on how it’s handled. It is, in short, a very powerful tool.

Styling involves getting the right words, the right phrasing, the right vocabulary and the right tone to the sentences. The word ‘right’, in this sense, is relative; it’s a value judgement. Different authors have different preferences – and so they should. If we all styled the same way, life would be boring. That said, a consistent style is often used by commercial magazines as a part of their branding. Take Time or National Geographic, for instance, where different contributions are re-styled in editorial to be consistent with the corporate ‘brand’.

In these and other magazines – including some I’ve written for – the author’s contribution is re-worked to meet a style without changing the meaning or content. And that principle also applies to your own novel – where the end point isn’t necessarily a ‘corporate’ style, but where you are trying to get it into a consistent shape that reflects your desired ‘voice’.

Some writers look on it as ‘re-writing’, but it isn’t – using the approach I recommend, it’s integral to the process. The time and effort required to get the styling right is often at least equal to the time and effort required to develop the structure and prepare an initial draft. The art of styling is also the art of preservation – keeping tight to the structure and themes you’d originally worked into the book.

If the book has been structured correctly – in the case of a novel, around the character arc with the narrative events and setting acting as backdrop – there should be no problems with extraneous scenes or extra characters, or padding, or any of the other irrelevancies that detract from the function of the character arc as the key device for capturing and holding readers.

Sometimes, of course, issues crop up structurally along the way as you review the work – meaning some re-work. But ideally, not too much.

So how does ‘styling’ work in the specific? More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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5 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: the importance of styling

  1. Styling is something I’m especially interested in. Some authors have a way of writing that make me fall into the book and get lost in there. I think they are ones who are essentially invisible, making the story itself become more present than the author. I’m guessing on this, just speculating. Bradbury and Heinlein could do it.

    It’s not always critical. For instance, Keith Laumer’s Retief series used to have me rolling with laughter. The author was very present, but I’m thinking this guy is brilliant and absolutely mad! Who else could come up with such crazy ideas? Well, I would find others of course.

    If I could have my choice, I’d be that author who slips behind the curtain while the reader is enraptured by the phantasms before him. I’m still working on that. Hopefully I’ll get there eventually.

    1. I’m sure you will – your stories are excellent. Yes, the ‘invisible style’ approach has tremendous merits. Isaac Asimov was a master of it – always criticised for having ‘no’ style, for absolute plain vanilla – but as he pointed out, it meant that nothing got between the meaning he wanted and his readers.

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