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What’s Your Writing Style? Do You Even Have One?

by David K. William | The Web Writer Spotlight: Aug 21, 2012

Do you have style—writing style?

Writing style is the distinctive manner in which a writer puts words together or organizes words. It is how your work is written as opposed to the meaning of what is written; a sum of sentence structure, literary perspectives, cultural allusions and world view that gives you a distinctive “voice,” which distinguishes your writing. Simply, it is a reflection of your thinking and speaking habits aligned with your delivery technique. So, what’s your style? Do you even have style? Why do you need style anyway?


Good writing style


Good writing style is essential in all writing genres. You won’t communicate effectively or get published online or in print without good style. It is important, however, to realize that style is subjective. Different audiences and publishers have different ideas about what constitutes good style and, therefore, prefer one style over another. Some publishers like newspaper publishers prefer writers to stick strictly to facts, while other publishers like fiction publishers give writers room to digress. Generally, though, mastery of good style indicates clarity, accuracy and precision in your writing.

Good style can reflect your personality, such as friendly, serious, chatty or brusque. Some writers write in short staccato sentences that reflect an aspect of their personality like shy while others write in longer, complex sentences that allude to an aspect of their personality like sophisticated. Of course, you can write in a way that is different from your personality. I don’t usually write as I speak. I am generally a man of few spoken words, but I find I have more than a few words to write when I get down to it.


Why you need good style


As a writer, you need to develop good style and be willing and able to vary your style to suit different ends, subjects and publication style guides for you to succeed in any genre. For example, if you aspire to break into writing articles for newspapers and magazines you will need to adapt your style and keep your writing strictly factual and to the point.

On the other hand, if you aspire to be a successful fiction writer of longer pieces like novels, you’ll find your audience and publishers expect you to use words liberally to convey your message in the best possible way. In other words, the type of project you have on hand, the target audience and the message you want to pass across will determine whether you have room for flowery writing or not.


Exemplary writing styles


Some writers have excellent writing styles that inspire others to develop their own distinctive styles. In history, the best writers gave us exemplary writing styles that adjectives have been coined from their names to describe their styles. Charles Dickens, George Orwell and Jonathan Swift are three such writers who created exemplary styles we can examine to get a feel for what good style can be.


1. Charles Dickens and the Dickensian style


Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a remarkable writer who gave us the Dickensian style, a rhythmic style meant to be read out loud. Not only are his Great Expectations newspaper columns habitually assigned as study material in higher institutions of  learning, but also his novels still make for good reading today. Many people like Dickens's biographer Claire Tomalin regard Dickens as the greatest creator of character in English fiction after Shakespeare.

Dickens loved words and used a lot of adjectives in his writing. His similes and metaphors give vivid mental images of people, their surroundings and even the weather in beautiful ways that reinforce each other. His seemingly whimsical and zany characters with delightfully outrageous names like Micawber, Pecksniff and Miss Havisham are powerful and memorable. The Dickensian style engrosses with its memorable descriptions and characters, burning resentment for institutionalized social inequities and sympathy for the poor and marginalized in society.


2. George Orwell and the Orwellian style


Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English journalist, poet and novelist who is considered one of the best English culture chroniclers of the 20th Century. He wrote fiction, poetry, literary criticism and polemical journalism that left an indelible mark of excellence in the writing world. His satirical fiction is considered some of the sharpest in the 20th century with timeless classics like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

George Orwell was a man of strong opinions and his personality shone through in his writing style. He did not shy away from giving his opinions on weighty matters regarding major political movements of his time, including fascism, imperialism and communism. His style is deceptively objective. It is defined by an acute awareness of social injustice, belief in democratic socialism and opposition to totalitarianism.

The Orwellian style insists on clear writing that employs shorter, stronger and more descriptive language to persuade readers to the writer’s point of view. Orwell's classic essay, Politics and the English Language demonstrates how to employ shorter, stronger and more effective language in writing. At the end of the essay, Orwell sums up with his five rules for effective writing that every writer interested in writing with clarity, wit and intelligence should internalize.  


3. Jonathan Swift and the Swiftian style




Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was an essayist, poet, satirist and political pamphleteer. He is best remembered for works such as A Modest Proposal, Gulliver’s Travels and Drapier's Letters. T.S. Eliot in The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, 1926 describes Swift as “…the greatest man who has ever written great English prose.”

The Swiftian style has a journalistic “feel” to it and has many references to bodily functions, such as the account of Gulliver extinguishing a fire with a stream of urine. A Modest Proposal reads like a newspaper article with the sort of short, clear sentences and statistics found in journalese.

Jonathan Swift identified clarity, directness, and freshness of expression as the chief qualities of a good style in his 1721 essay Letter to a Young Gentleman Lately Entered Into Holy Orders. The English poet, literary critic and philosopher Samuel Coleridge in the Lecture on Style, 1818 says:

“Swift's style is, in its line, perfect; the manner is a complete expression of the matter, the terms appropriate, and the artifice concealed. It is simplicity in the true sense of the word.”


Developing your own style


You can develop and improve your own writing style by reading and writing more. Writing like other crafts needs to be practiced and nurtured to bear the desired fruits. So, be self-critical about your writing if you are serious about developing your own distinct style.

  • Check your flow

Read your words out loud or get someone else to read your work out to you so you hear how your work flows. This strategy can help you write like a human. Ask yourself some basic questions: Do my sentences flow nicely?

Do I have variety in sentence length and structure? Are there any obvious repetitions or awkward phrases in my work? Correct all problems to improve your flow.

  • Check your tone

Tone is the way in which a writer expresses his attitude regarding a subject. It is what the writer feels about the subject. Tone not only reveals your attitude towards your subject, but also your unique personality. Tone can be angry, bitter, breezy, arrogant, informal, sarcastic, ironic or cynical. Remember the admonition when you were young:

"Don’t use that tone of voice with me Missy (or Mister)!”

Your tone should be appropriate for your audience and the purpose for which you are writing. Ask yourself a few basic questions to determine the most appropriate tone for your audience and subject.

Why am I writing this? Who am I writing this to? What do I want the reader to pick or learn from this? Answer the questions and adjust your tone well to deliver your message appropriately and effectively.

  • Check your rhythm

Rhythm in writing is analogous to symphony in music. Good rhythm is like a perfect symphony orchestra where all the different instruments in the orchestra blend together beautifully to create sweet, soothing and enjoyable music.

Bad rhythm is like an orchestra gone wild where every instrument is jostling for the spotlight and the music conductor seems to have called in sick. The resultant sound is not music, but noise. Any person still left in the orchestra eventually, inevitably finds himself screaming for ear plugs to block out the noisy commotion.

Stand back dispassionately and look at your sentence structure. Have you varied your sentence length? What choice of words have you used? How do the words sound? What feeling does the resultant rhythm evoke? Is it good, soothing "music" or one big, noisy "orchestra" gone wild?

Mix up one-word sentences and longer, complex sentences with a couple of exclamations or questions deliberately to embroider your work with beautiful, elaborate rhythm. Examine how exemplary and famous writers who write with rhythm and style do it.

Make a mental note and practice writing with rhythm and style in your own writing. Don't be afraid to write and rewrite and rewrite some more to improve on quality and achieve your desired rhythmic effect. Good writers rewrite many times over to improve their art, enhance reader engagement and strike a beautiful, harmonious balance in the final note of a complex “concerto.”


Bottom line


Jonathan Swift once said that good writing style is "proper words in proper places." Your style should be proper. It should have the right words placed in the right places and make your meaning distinctively clear. That, for me, is good style. What’s your writing style?

See also: 6 Common Mistakes that Doom Writing Careers.


David K. William is a web writer, publisher and entrepreneur. Everything he writes is inspired by life experiences and study. David is also founding editor of Follow him on Twitter @DavidKWilliam.



Awesome responses

I like simple and honest but I also REALLY like words and metaphor so I like to be creative when I can without being too flowery. When I write my first draft it's usually devoid of the feelings and scene nuances. Going back to revise is when it gets really enjoyable. Using a thesaurus and creating imagery that will evoke emotions I want to convey, this is the fun part of writing. Good writing doesn't happen instantly. It takes time. Distance from it is useful because upon my return I can see more clearly how I want to revise and polish my dull first draft into something that sparkles.

I was told in College that i write poetry similar to Emily Dickinson, even right down to her hyphens on the end of sentences in her verses... and I have a thing for the Romantic British Poets. I think every writer should clue herself or himself into that voice they have for writing. But also, it's good to adopt your own voice. And to grow into it fully.

I definitely have a distinctive writing style; it is much like my speaking style. I have been a nonfiction writer for 42 years and have found that my "voice" has evolved over time. If I had to describe it in a word, the word would be conversational, especially when I am writing about writing. It is more difficult to describe how I write than to simple write and let it speak for itself.

Hello everyone! Like Cathy, I used to write poetry. Often, I would try to rhyme it but was told I wrote better "in pictures". So now, any writing I do I call "Writing with a view."

Hi David, What a great post! I write chick-lit books so my style is witty, friendly and candid. I think you really get a flavour for what I'm like as a person if you read one of my books.

Writers, like actors, can develop many voices, and will choose the voice most appropriate for the audience in a given arena. Unlike actors, we don't have the option of changing voices part way through the performance, if it turns out that we've made the wrong choice before we strut our stuff.

Cran is right. If you're a novelist, it makes sense to develop and maintain a consistent voice or style. A small number of actors might do that too (think Clint Eastwood or Christopher Walken), but many of us writers are best served by being able to write in a variety of styles and voices. For example, I've written copy for luxury homes, engineering products, and pharmaceuticals. Each requires a different style.

Another angle... I write for corporations who have very strong brand identities. I don't have the luxury of inflicting my voice in their materials. I must use the voice that is dictated by their brand. They've spent millions developing a brand, which includes a company voice. And there are likely thousands of people writing for the same companies. We ALL must maintain a consistent voice - otherwise it will dilute the power of their brand. So, I agree with whoever said we must be able to develop many voices - one for every purpose (or client). (Oh yeah, I also write middle grade novels and romance - not the same voice there either.)

I totally agree with Jeanette, here. I write for corporations, too, and one of the first things I need to know is what "voice" best suits the corporation's needs. That's part of my job. In fiction, I always alter my style based upon the POV character. I recently wrote a story from a seven-year-old's POV, so poetic and/or academic verbiage was out of the question (just as an extreme example). I'm presently writing something from an academic's POV in the first person, so the voice completely changes. I use this as a case in point to emphasise the fact that it's vital to not go too far with anything, also. My academic still needs to connect with readers, and so it's in the subtleties of the prose that the POV's nature reveals itself. First person POV is a good craft exercise--can help teach what not to do--because the "voice"character really is "telling" the reader a story, and yet we as the author must still ensure the story shows, rather than tells.

I've got nothing but style--it's finding a story, recognizing material with possibilities, that's hard for me. For example, my latest novel, due out in September (PICNIC IN EDEN), developed from a brief event of 40 years ago, when I returned a toddler from a playdate and was told I couldn't be invited in because of insurance issues. I glanced from the foyer into the drawing room and was puzzled to see major paintings hanging on the walls. The woman explained: "I have an arrangement with a couple of art galleries to hang paintings and allow them to bring clients to view them in a quiet, elegant environment. How do you think I manage to live on Park Avenue and send my child to private school--I'm a single mom!" It took me 40 years to see the story in that incident! Meantime, my first novel has been republished with a handsome cover:

I came across this today and I think it speaks to your question: “Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don't always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive.... Virtually every page is a cliffhanger--you've got to force them to turn it."~” - Dr. Seuss

Whatever the medium, vertical, context or environment, I go for the likeability factor. I always figure people want to buy from, work with and just plain want to be around someone they like, so copy should reflect that element. The aspirational sector might be the exception to the rule. High-end jewelry, clothing, automotive, etc. seem to veer towards the distant and vacuous end of the seesaw. Can't quite figure that brand of marketing, but I'm likely not their market anyways. ;/

I remember when an English teacher in high school wrote a reference letter for me, she said that I already had my own unique writing style. I think the main thing I take from that is that I do have a natural gift as a writer. But over the years, my style and voice has changed quite a bit. I even find items I wrote a year ago and find I want to edit them still! I think your point is well-taken that we need to write, to some extent, for our audience, as well as according to what the tone should be. I sometimes write very serious articles on my blog. When I do, I'm not going to venture too much with humor. On the other hand, right now I'm writing a humorous article on an aspect of the disco era. I want it to be fun and entertaining, so it has a different tone. Either way, though, I think my personality comes through. Whether I'm being serious or fun, it's still me.
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