The other day, in fairly quick succession, I found myself writing (a) revisions to a second edition of a non-fiction history book I wrote years ago, (b) a fantasy story I’ve recently been commissioned to write, and (c) a grant application.
All of them demanded utterly different writing styles – and I had to jump between them.
Luckily I’ve spent several decades writing and have full control of writing style. But I didn’t get there by accident. It’s a specific skill, and it’s one writers have to deliberately acquire. I also think that the ability to control style is one of the most crucial and basic skills needed in writing.
All too often I see beginning writers – now, of course, publishing on Amazon – clearly struggling with everything from characterisation to structure to composition and styling. They are on a learning curve at many levels, and my advice is to focus on each of the needed skills in turn – starting with the basic mechanics of writing: assembling the words in the intended style.
To do that demands control of style – making words your servant. From that emerges ‘voice’, which is a combination of the written style and the nature of the content.
One of the ways to get command of style is to practise writing in the style of others. That’s a skill drawn in from music: in formal Royal Schools training, for example, students have to write new music ‘in the style of’ a specific other composer. That means figuring out, in detail, how the composer did it.
The same is true of writing. Pick an author. Can you figure out how they do it? Take Hemingway. He’s often tagged for ‘short’ sentences, but he also wrote run-on sentences. His style is simple, declarative, and unadorned. Another author worth checking out is Isaac Asimov, who was always criticised for having ‘no’ writing style. Of course he did. Asimov’s intent – which he was clear about – was to strip writing down to its plainest vanilla basics, so nothing got between him and the reader.
So what, exactly, constitutes ‘style’? What makes up the specific word-choice, phrasing, rhythms and so forth of written English in its different forms?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016