Style me this.
We’ve delved into the realm of voice before, but what about style? When questioned, agents and publishers agree that the “wrong” style is one of their top five reasons for rejecting a manuscript.
There is a difference between choosing style and being chosen by it.
Historical writers tend to overindulge in styles that are too archaic for the modern reader. Romance writers often fall into the trap of using a sickly florid style. The trendy amongst us lean towards a style that is too minimalist to be enjoyable. Others still can have styles that are either too clipped or too protracted. For graduate students – I number myself amongst them – the main stylistic error is the academic one.
When we think of a writer’s style, we tend to describe it in terms of the “feel” of their prose. If the feel is one of self-indulgence then chances are the style has been misused.
There are no clear cut ways of identifying whether the style is wrong, but I will try to enumerate a few that might be of help if you believe that your prose is suffering from stylistic errors. I find that the best way to identify problems is by asking questions. Here are the ones I use to correct mistakes in my own prose:
- Does the writing feel forced or exaggerated in any way? Does it fit the point of view character or am I – the author – intruding into the story?
- Am I showing off? Did I inadvertently use the novel to exhibit for my writing prowess rather than to tell a story?
- What will a reader notice first: my writing or the story? Is my writing too noticeable?
- Do I tell the same story again and again in a slightly different way? Is much of my writing overextended or redundant?
- Do I write for myself or the reader? Have I become self-indulgent in my prose?
At times I’ve discovered that I was too precious about my writing and this got in the way of my telling the story. I had to be ruthless and cut those fragments – pages or even whole chapters at times – and start again. I decided that it was more important for the reader to enjoy the story, be absorbed into the life and world I created, rather than sit back and enjoy my pretty writing.
Next, I interviewed my characters, especially the protagonists, and let them answer in their own voice. This allowed me to return to the story and tell it from the point of view of the characters and in their style rather than my own. Fitting style to the story is key.
Telling, rather than writing a story first was also a great help in breaking away from both florid and overly academic writing styles. Subsequently, I was able to write prose that had a “natural” feel to it.
I shortened sentences that were too long. Some sentences that were too short and did not work in that particular context, I combined with others to give flow to the prose. I eliminated anachronistic phrases and expressions and found modern equivalents.
To banish the academic in me I found another set of solutions:
- Cutting out passages that preached about life and politics – this was not the place to argue about the redundancy of Scottish independence.
- Whenever an idea had been expressed in a roundabout way, I cut the whole. If there was a straightforward way of saying it, I did. If not – I left it out.
- Finally, all quotes were eliminated – no need to reference “the greats.” This is fiction after all.
The easiest way to improve your style is by searching through your prose for repetition. If you made the same point twice then pick the best option and cut the other one out. If you made your point well the first time around, the second will be redundant.
One more thing and then I’m off the style box:
If you think you have a style problem then letting go of your style may be the best solution. To do this, write down the main “talking points” then tell the story out loud and record it. This should help you discover what your “natural” style is.
Once I did this, I found that the feel of my prose improved. Hope this will be the case for you too.