What is it? Is it genre-specific – a certain format that stamps the writers presence on their prose? Is it content specific – dependent on what you are writing about? Or is it all down to intent? An underlying principle that delivers a specific impact aside from the words it is conveyed through.
Probably all of these- and more. Style is a writer’s personal signature created through their collection and use of words. It seems easy, when we refer to a writer’s style, to assume that as soon as anyone starts writing, they immediately adopt their personal style and that’s it.
Of course it’s hardly that simple. Personal style is something that develops over a period of time- like the way children grow. The five year old shows only the tantalising whisp of the promise of the adult they will become. Professor Winston, in his documentary series of ‘7 up’, ‘14 up’ and so on tried to demonstrate how the adult-to-be was clearly present in the child, and in as much as he could indicate certain traits in them, but it was very much down to the experiences they had and the opportunities that came their way that shaped their future. It’s the old nature/nurture argument. We have latent abilities but we have to do something with them to develop them into skills, so writing style doesn’t automatically flow from the first piece of prose we write, it grows from practice and experimentation.
Trial and error, experimentation and repetition, and wide reading help, but in the end it will be down to time, volume and feedback that will ultimately develop the style you stick with – how you feel about it, how well it delivers the message you want to give, and whether your readers get that same satisfaction and understanding from reading it in that format. That is where writing exercises and prompts and subsequent feedback and critique has most value.
To play around with possible forms, look at a variety of writing styles amongst well-known authors – the flowing-thought style of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar , the densely descriptive and somewhat turgid style of Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies), the pacy style of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (most recent – The Child’s Child) or the almost conversational style of Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending). These are just a few ideas – pick a favourite author, or a new one you’ve not read before – or one that is a current award winner – of the Costa etc. Now, try out writing in their style and see how it fits with you. Take any piece of prose – it can just be taken from a newspaper article, if you like, and write it in the style you’ve chosen. How does it fit with you? Are you happy writing in that style? How have you instinctively modified it? Do you like reading that style of prose?
Now turn it around and take a section from one of their books and try paraphrasing it into your words. What comes out the other end? It will almost invariably be the style you instinctively slip into and that will form a basis for how you style your future writing, although you may adopt several styles depending on the work you are doing at the time. For instance essays and academic articles will almost certainly have a more literary and formal style, magazine articles more conversational and fiction may have any style you like to adopt as long as it melds with the genre you are writing in. After that, it is a case of write, write, and write, and you will hone your style more and more; and invite feedback and positive criticism whenever you can.
Do not take criticism personally; take it as a means to improvement, after all, the most successful style – however it is formed – is the one a reader wants to read.
Follow me on Twitter @Storytellerdeb