The inner secrets of writing style

Literary historians have often had a niggling worry that the plays of William Shakespeare were actually written by somebody else – the Earl of Bedford is one favourite. And there are others.

Hobbit sign on the way back to the bus.
Road signs on the Hobbiton Movie Set. Tolkien’s writing had specific styling which he changed to suit the mood, varying from narrative to epic.

My take is that they weren’t written by William Shakespeare, but by somebody else with the same name who was married to a famous Hollywood actress. But who listens to me?

Anyhow, the way these theories emerge is through painstaking analysis of the Immortal Bard’s writing style, which is then matched up against a similar micro-analysis of the style of somebody else. The technique is known as stylometry, and such delving into literary forensics is a specific skill. It’s often applied to pseudonymous works to identify the author behind the name. Computer programmes have been written to do it, but there’s no substitute for a human mind in such analysis.

Everyday writers don’t need to be such detailed experts in styling, but knowing the basics of what constitutes written style is an essential writing skill. If you know that, you can emulate the style of others, as an exercise. And being able to do that is, itself, a key skill because it means you then get full conscious control of your own expression and style.

And sometimes it’s useful to be able to write in different styles, anyway, for your own work. You wouldn’t write a formal report in the same style as you write fiction, for instance. Or non-fiction for that matter.

There is an awful lot to this, but in general things that define specific style are:

– particular vocabulary (range, lengths of words, are there any characteristic words the author uses?)

– rhythm and pace (the selected meter, phrasing, sentence lengths)

– patterns of phrasing

– specific punctuation quirks

– quirks associated with overall structure

– specific items of content

A lot of it is subtle, which is why mathematically pattern-matching by machine doesn’t work as well as the human mind. One of humanity’s own quirks is an uncanny ability to see patterns and the ‘humanised’ side of those patterns, in ways that machines generally can’t (yet…).

The challenge for writers is to be able to understand enough of this to control their own style – and to be practised and familiar enough with expressing those styles to then write in any desired way. Being able to do that means the writer has fuller control of their ‘selected’ style – they can write with a consistent style across the length of a book, and they don’t struggle with basic expression.

Mastering this, I think, is one of the most basic writing skills – because afterwards, writers are free to concentrate on the actual content of their work.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


2 thoughts on “The inner secrets of writing style

  1. It’s well known that Shakespeare adapted his plays etc from the original Klingon! Everyone knows that. Well, everyone who watches Star Trek.

    Writing style, and speaking style, is how Donald Trump doesn’t get away with it when he pretends to be someone else. Anyone who listens to him can recognize his style immediately, Believe me.

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