Some think that writing style issues are irrelevant because an author’s style is a personal choice. Indeed it is a personal choice, though that choice is mostly unconscious. We each express ourselves in a way that sounds right to us, that is in our voice—unless we’re doing a copy-cat of someone else or aiming to write in a particular style for a particular purpose, for instance, a Gothic style or a report. Our style may be similar to another author, of course, but our word choice, what we choose to reveal and focus on, and how we phrase our thoughts will be ours alone. For that reason, as an editor, I try not to do anything that changes an author’s overall style; I aim to strengthen, not weaken their voice. However, stylistic choices that are ‘bad form’ do have to be eradicated if the author wants a truly professional product. Certain stylistic choices are ‘bad form’ for a reason; not just because someone says so, but because they water down the author’s message—they weaken the communication or are simply jarring or tedious for the reader.
Styles for specific purposes
Sometimes a passage may be simply the wrong style for the purpose of the writing. For instance, when a passage in the middle of a novel sounds like something from a history book, that passage jumps out as ‘wrong’ and it needs to be re-written to suit a fictional style.
There are four main types of writing: expository, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive.
Expository (Telling) – Writing in which the author’s purpose is to inform or explain the subject to the reader. Seen in non-fiction books, journalism, magazine articles, reports, blog posts, and so on. Expository writing also has different styles for different usages: text books, for instance, have a different style to a personal examination of a topic.
Persuasive – Writing that states the opinion of the writer and attempts to influence the reader, such as is seen in opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, blogs and some non-fiction. This kind of writing is only appropriate in fiction as something one character might say to another; if persuasion to a view is the intention the narrator, the book comes across as didactic. Non-fiction is a better platform for persuasive writing.
Narrative – Writing in which the author tells a story. The story could be fact or fiction. The vital part of a narrative is that the writing must have a narrative structure—created by having a protagonist with an aim, an antagonist with a contrary aim, and conflict between them, which creates the story. It also needs a story arc, so it’s not just a series of conflicts, but rather the tension grows to a climax as the protagonist meets ever greater challenges and finally overcomes—or, if you want to be depressing, bows to—his or her challenges.
Descriptive (Showing) – A type of expository writing that uses the five senses to paint a picture for the reader. This writing incorporates imagery and specific details.
When writing a novel, the first two types of writing are not advisable general approaches to take, whereas the latter two are vital aspects of fiction writing. If a novel is written mostly as exposition, I’ll suggest that the author rewrite it mostly in a descriptive/showing rather than a expositional/telling style – at least the key scenes. Yes, it is the author’s choice; they can use all expositional style if they want—and sometimes that can work, particularly if it’s in first person—but if they want their novel to be gripping and be seen as a great book rather than a mediocre one, then a descriptive narrative style will achieve that better than an expository style.
Style at the prose level
Within the styles mentioned above as appropriate for specific purposes, particularly in fiction, authors will have different styles. Two authors may both be writing in a descriptive fashion, but their writing style will be different on the level of their prose—on what vocabulary, sentence structures, and literary devices, such as similes and metaphors, they choose to use. Some will say that however an author writes at this level is fine because it’s a personal choice, but bad habits in our prose diminish the power of our writing, and can bore or annoy readers, or see the story bogged down with excess verbiage.
Some elements of good prose
- Varied sentence structure—a variety of simple,
compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences, particularly not
several consecutive sentences structured the same way. The prose should have a rhythm
that is easy to read with complex sentences followed by simple sentences, for
instance, and a variety of short and long sentences. Don’t write the whole book
in short simple sentences, for example; though that can be used to advantage
for a specific purpose, such as to give an edgy feel or to build tension, if a
whole novel is written like that, the prose soon gets tedious. I recently gave
up on an otherwise good series because the prose was all like that.
A variety of sentence beginnings – such as the ultimate marker of a hack writer, starting sentences with an ‘ing’ ending participle. For example: Writing this, I remember how tedious the prose is when an author uses a lot of this kind of sentence construction.
- Varied word choices – not overusing words and phrases, particularly memorable ones.
- Grammar that makes the meaning clear.
- Clarity of expression.
- Spaces of straight prose between similes and metaphors, and not so many of them that the pace slows and the prose seems unnecessarily ‘flowery’.
- No extraneous words.
I examine more elements of good prose in my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, but essentially as a friend once told me:
‘Beautiful writing is when every word is the right word, in its right place and there for a reason. There is nothing extraneous. The words flow so smoothly that the reader is transported beyond the words. They even forget they are reading.’Elizabeth Weiss, publisher at Allen and Unwin, Australia.
Few of us manage to do that in our first book!
What sounds right to you may not sound right to someone else
Reading your book out loud to yourself is the best way to check the flow of your prose and alert you to any ‘sameness’ in your writing, but you will also probably miss things that jump out to others. If your writing sounds ‘right’ to you, then it’s either good to go, or you may simply have gone as far as you can with it. Either way, that’s the point at which you hand your writing over to an editor for their professional opinion.
A line edit should strengthen your voice and your style by removing any problematic stylistic elements that you’re unable to see yourself. Once an editor has pointed out any habitual style issues you may have, you’ll learn to avoid them in future.
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
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