The Steez

I’ve been thinking about writing styles a lot lately. It’s probably related to the fantastic authors I’ve encountered, like Neil Gaiman and Shannon Hale (via their books. Sadly, not in real life). What makes a writer’s style unique? I’ve tried to pinpoint unique characteristics to these authors and others as I’ve read, in an effort to understand a) what makes them so good and b) how to improve my writing style.

At my very first workshop in grad school, someone asked point blank, “I’m not familiar with this genre (ya paranormal) but is it normal for there not to be a writing style?”

Talk about a slap to the face! They obviously didn’t mean it to be mean, but it was a huge wake up call to me. So that semester I set a goal to develop a writing style. By the end of the semester, I had something unique yet comfortable to write in (for me)–I was on my way to developing my own style!

Of course, it doesn’t end there. A lot of the writing style was tied up in Audrey’s voice (protag for my thesis). So when it came time to write FRACTURED RADIANCE, I had to develop my style further, adapting it for a different voice, tense, and POV.

Here are a few elements I feel make up a writing style:

1) Sentence Structure – Do you tend to longer, more complicated sentences like Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy? Or do you prefer shorter sentences like Hemingway? Whichever you feel most comfortable writing in, make sure to still vary your sentence length for variety, flow, and easier reading.

2) Lexicon – Do you have a preference for harnessing your plethora of polysyllabic words, or do you want to stick to more common words? I think this will depend largely on your audience.

3) Dialogue vs. Description vs. Narration vs. Exposition – Do you like to keep an even balance, or does a lot of your story happen in the character’s head? Or do you love writing long descriptive paragraphs? Your genre and audience will often dictate this as well, but every rule is made to be broken, so if you can write good YA with long descriptive passages, go for it!

4) Stylistic Choices – These are harder to define. Like using sentence fragments. Or perhaps you like to include an occasional run-on sentence, you feel it gives your manuscript a little flair. Whatever choices you go with, make sure they are DELIBERATE. Don’t just italicize dialogue because it looks cool. Have a distinct purpose.

5) Your Tone – Are you a melancholy writer? Are you playful and cheerful? Somber? Edgy?

6) Your Relationship with Words – This one sounds strange, but I think it’s incredibly important. How do you feel about words? Are they building blocks, and there’s only one way to construct your sentence? Are they a disposable, renewable resource, something for you to play with and explore new combinations? For instance, Shannon Hale is what I would describe as a playful writer. She has such fun with words–and she has an incredible unique way of looking at/describing the world. Pick up any of her books, and you’ll see what I mean. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, is a bit more serious. He does explore descriptions, but is much more selective in which ones he includes (this observation from reading only one book, American Gods). 

A good starting place is to find an author whose writing you love, and try to mimic them. You’ll find some aspects feel natural, while others don’t (or perhaps none do). Then take another author you admire, and try to mimic a few of their characteristics. Overtime, you’ll find your style. And of course, style is not a stagnant thing–it tends to evolve and change as you write more (at least, in my experience).

And then you have to learn how to adapt your writing style to each narrator of every story you write. The fun never stops!!

Do you have any other aspects to add to this list?

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I write speculative fiction inspired by mythos from around the world, complex family dynamics, and my own experiences living with mental illness. After earning my BA in Linguistics from Brigham Young University in 2008, I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in 2012. I live in Denver, where my husband and I spend countless hours chasing our three young sons (and sometimes catching them!). I collect tarot decks, dye my hair mermaid colors, and procrastinate by decorating my home. My debut novel, Feathers Sharp as Knives, releases on May 2, 2023.

3 thoughts on “The Steez

  1. Great rundown. Under “stylistic choices”, I’d include “grammatical choices”, or perhaps “punctuation choices” as well. Some writers use lots of semi-colons, for example, to string together related thoughts (usually these writers are also in the “long sentences” camp), while others tend to use only periods, commas, and question marks.

    And perhaps this would fit under “relationship with words”, but narrative style is another factor. Some writers are very direct, telling you what happens in the story without much embellishment. Others include lots of asides, set off by parentheses (like in my first paragraph, and now here) or em-dashes.

    1. Good points! I would say narrative style stands on its own. That’s more like your relationship with the story, rather than just words themselves.
      In casual writing, I employ lots of parentheses, and I plan on writing a book in first person one day in which the narrator/protag uses them a lot too. I can imagine the type of character that would do that, and think it would be fun to write.

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