Different writing styles are preferred in different genres. A romcom differs stylistically from a taut thriller. These 7 tips will help you improve your own writing style. First, though, what is ‘writing style’ exactly?
A definition of writing style
Writing style, broadly speaking, refers to the way something is written, opposed to the content or meaning of what is said. As Wheaton College’s resource for writing style, diction, tone and voice points out, style in writing influences how we interpret meaning. A passage of fiction with an ominous tone, for example, might make you expect a shocking or terrible event.
Developing a good style in your fiction writing is important because:
- Bad prose style that uses clichés and poor sentence structure and tone is a turn-off to many readers
- Good style enhances the meaning and message of your fiction, communicating your imaginative ideas better and increasing reader enjoyment
- Developing great style will help you find a willing publisher easier
Here are 7 tips for becoming a master prose stylist:
1. Make sure your diction is appropriate to your genre and subject
Diction means word choice – it’s the overarching pattern of wording you use in your fiction. If you’re writing a contemporary romantic comedy, your book will seem bizarre if it’s peppered with archaic language. If a character living in 20th Century New York says ‘thy’ and ‘thou’, for example, it would seem odd. To improve your diction:
- Build your vocabulary actively. Dip into a dictionary or thesaurus daily and learn a few words. Don’t just stop at their definitions. Learn their etymology so you have a clear idea of the connotations (meaning associations) that lie at their roots
- Find the right word with the right connotations. Mark Twain called the difference between the right word and the almost-right word ‘the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.’ For example, there is a subsantial difference between a character ‘striking’ (implying a singular act) and ‘beating’ (implying multiple strikes and greater violence) another character.
- Avoid abstract diction if concrete diction is possible. ‘Abstract diction’ uses words that do not appeal to the reader’s imagination and ability to visualize. Abstract nouns such as ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are examples (see a useful guide to abstract and concrete diction here). Instead of saying ‘over the years she became wary of love,’ you could say ‘over the years she grew used to changing the subject quickly whenever her romantic life was raised’.
Great diction will ensure that your writing conveys meaning effectively and appeals to readers’ imaginations more effectively too.
2. Know differences in positive versus negative association between similar words
One important aspect of diction is to remember that synonyms can have positive or negative connotations. For example, although ‘to argue’ and ‘to quarrel’ are both terms meaning to engage in dialogue, ‘arguing’ implies a process towards some ultimate consensus (and can be constructive) whereas ‘quarelling’ has stronger connotations of conflict and opposition. Make sure that you don’t accidentally use a word with positive connotations where you mean to use a negative one and vice versa.
3. Make your tone suit your audience and writing subject
‘Tone’ in writing refers to the overall attitude or feeling that it conveys. Whether it has an informal and casual or detached, professional quality, for example. Different genres of fiction can be more casual or formal in tone. In a romcom, for example, characters should speak like real people, and there should be a degree of cosy informality to the writing.
Make sure the word choice component of your diction sets an appropriate tone for your audience and ask yourself:
- What is the average age and reading level of my story’s intended audience?
- What kind of language does my audience like and expect? (Slang? Rich descriptive language?)
One way to ensure that your tone is right for your audience is to pay conscious attention to tone in writers whose work you admire:
4. Read writers whose different writing styles you enjoy and learn through imitation
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but it’s also one of the best tools for learning different writing styles. Read writers whose fiction is stylistically poles apart. Compare Ernest Hemingway, for example, whose prose is spare, clipped and to-the-point with a victorian author such as Jane Austen whose writing is more loquacious/flowing. Imitate stylistically different authors such as these because:
- You’ll learn in the process what your own unique style is – the diction, tone and structure that makes your writing distinctive.
- Reading effective writing that has stood the test of time will help you identify and improve on flaws in your own writing style.
5. Practice total clarity
Clarity is an important element of writing style. How clear is the meaning in each sentence you write? Have you conveyed what you mean so there is no ambiguity? Often punctuation is the culprit when clarity is absent.
For example, a magazine cover featuring Rachel Ray was photoshopped to create a comical meme. The cover (which many mistook for the real, unaltered image) read ‘Rachel Ray loves cooking her family and her dog.’ A few missing commas can turn a harmless individual into a cannibal, so refer to a basic punctuation guide often.
Online writing tools such as the Hemingway Editor can also help you to identify weak points in your sentences and revise for greater writing clarity.
Celebrated author Kurt Vonnegut also had this to say about the stylistic pros of keeping things simple:
‘As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline‘ is this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.’
6. Familiarize yourself with common features of different writing styles
There are key elements of different writing styles that make up what is distinct about them. For example, in thriller novels, the style often consists of taut pace (which relies on shorter average sentence length) and terse or stark tone. In literary writing, the style itself is particularly important (as opposed to genre fiction in which memorable characters and the incorporation of specific plot tropes (such as the dangers or wonders of science and technology in sci-fi) are more important).
In historical fiction, writing style is often ornate, since in bygone eras language was considerably different (compare Shakespeare’s English with its addresses of ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ and modern English).
Once you understand what is specific and particular about the style of each fiction genre, you’ll be better able to branch out into writing novels in genres you are less experienced with.
7. Find style-fitting imagery
Imagery (the sensory details you use in your writing such as sight, sound and smell) is an important element of your writing style. The stylistic similarity of works in the same genre means that books in those genres often share similar imagery. A hardboiled detective drama will typically feature bleak city-scapes, dingy offices and alleyways whereas a historical romance will often incorporate sweeping manors in open, spacious countrysides.
To make sure your story’s imagery and style work together well, think about the mood you want to establish. Do you want to create a dark and threatening backdrop for dramatic character conflicts and dangers in a detective novel? Then you would typically combine spare, stripped-down description with stark imagery that conveys a strong sense of the simmering tension that grips your fictional world.
If you’re writing a feel-good comedy, on the other hand, find light, care-free imagery to use in your settings that will complement your stylistic choices.
Mastering different styles of writing is easiest when you develop your diction, tone and general writing ability. Start improving your writing style now with the help of feedback from the Now Novel writing community.