The most important writing skill is…

I’m always intrigued by the way writing appears, on the face of it – to be easy. It’s taught in school, so it must be easy – right? And then the reality of it is that it’s actually incredibly difficult, unless you put in the 10,000 hours of practise needed to master a skill. For it is a skill, with many, many facets ranging from style to content to structure to – to – you get the picture.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...
A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

One of the hardest things to do in writing is to emulate another style – or change styles – in a compelling way. I occasionally see attempts by authors to do it, and inevitably they’ll slip. But control of style is one of the key skills authors need.

Basically, if you can control your style – and the best way to learn that is to practise emulating other ones – you’re in the default position of having control over your words at all times. So try this:

  1. Pick an author (let’s say Ernest Hemingway).
  2. Read that author. What’s unique about the style? (Clue: Hemingway did NOT just write short declarative sentences).
  3. Make some notes about the uniqueness of the style –sentence length, phrasing, paragraph structure, use of grammar, nature of vocabulary, and so on.
  4. Now sit down and try to write a sentence – then a paragraph – in that same style.
  5. Repeat the exercise with our own writing. Do they match?
  6. Try it again…

This technique doesn’t address the content – which is another aspect of what makes any author’s work unique. It’s designed only to practise the style. And, of course, the material that emerges is intended to be thrown away afterwards. Concert pianists don’t record and publish their learning sessions – and you shouldn’t, either, as a writer.

Does it work for you? Do you practise writing in ‘other styles’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “The most important writing skill is…

  1. I wrote a novel which I entered for the Amazon debut novel awards or something. There was a pompous character in it who wrote pompous blog post and one of the award judges thought these blog posts were me being pompous rather than me writing in the style of a pompous writer. (If any of that makes sense.)

    I find I have to be careful not to write too soon after reading Martin Amis; his influence on me becomes quite intrusive, and I don’t do Martin Amis anything like as good as the man himself.

    1. I suspect people who confuse what someone writes with what they actually are – or supposes that what’s presented is a kind of ‘natural’ voice don’t, themselves, understand that writers who know what they’re doing can control their voice very precisely.

  2. I don’t really understand- why are you trying to emulate someone else’s style? This sounds like advice that’s only relevant to people that are trying to make adaptations of books for tv/films.

    1. It’s a technical teaching exercise. To learn how to write in someone else’s style forces the learning writer to understand how the style works. This is a very effective way of giving them mastery of the use of words. Their own voice is thus more under control.

      1. I understand that, but to be honest, I don’t regard writing in another author’s voice as entirely necessary. You could achieve the same results by honing your skills as a reader (ie analysing an author’s style and techniques), without wasting your time trying to mimic other people’s work. If you have enough knowledge of different techniques, then you won’t have any trouble drawing from multiple authors at once and creating your own voice.

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