46. About Writing: Style

Jon Acuff tweeted something insightful the other day about literary style: “The only way to find your voice as a writer is to write. Fear says you need to find your voice BEFORE you write. Don’t listen.” A somewhat less positive opinion was once expressed about style by some writer or other: “Style is a terrible thing to happen to anybody.”

Literary style can be defined as the distinct voice of a writer. If the term voice is a little vague, it’s because it includes too many aspects to be covered in a single convenient word. An author’s voice consists of many elements: tone, the attitude of the writer; diction, the words the writer uses; syntax, the way the writer arranges those words; and more. Even basic elements like grammar and spelling make up a writer’s style—consider the immortal passage in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which the narrator declares: “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me.”

So what exactly is this vague thing called style? The term voice isn’t very precise. Rather than try to pin down an exact definition, let’s get stylish and look at a few examples.

Let’s take a simple sentence: The boy ran around the corner and ran into his grandpa’s large stomach. Fairly bland, eh?

All right, let’s say the same thing as Huck Finn might: The young’un turned the corner and run slap into his grandpappy’s belly. The style is more colloquial, but the same basic information is conveyed.

What if our character is more sophisticated—say a butler like Jeeves from the stories by P.G. Wodehouse? Jeeves might express the situation thus: The lad careened round the corner and collided with the impressive bulk of his grandfather’s ample middle. Once again the sentence means more or less the same thing, but the style gives off a completely different vibe.

Style is a key component of storytelling. A mystery writer must describe complex situations in a way that keeps the reader engaged without becoming too confusing or hard to follow. A comedy writer must—obviously—be funny. A romance writer must convey the nuances of that most complicated of relationships, the romantic courtship, in a manner that’s vivid and believable. (I’m guessing about the romance writer, since most romances make my stomach hurt.) Apart from the unique, individual style of each writer, each literary genre demands a certain kind of writing.

What about that unique, individual style? If you’re a writer, how in blazes are you supposed to find your own voice?

You’ve probably guessed it if you’ve read my first post about writing, but the answer lies in reading and writing. Writers tend to imitate the styles they enjoy reading and refine their own style as they write.

An author isn’t limited to a single style, of course. Writers tailor their style to suit the sort of work they’re doing. For example, my style when I compose posts for TMTF tends to be conversational. My style when I write Solidarity reports, however, is plain and precise: a systematic, minimalist style I picked up from a couple of journalism classes in high school and college. Then there’s my style when I write fiction, which tends to be wry. I enjoy using dry humor, even in stories with melancholy events.

Style is often the thing that sets a writer apart and makes him or her truly memorable—or at the very least, fun to read.

What literary styles do you enjoy reading? Let us know in the comments!

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