Understanding Style



Style refers to the way in which words are used to convey images to the reader. Any story may be presented in different styles. Consider a Shakespearian play being rewritten using modern language. This would be a change in style, but otherwise, the story could remain unchanged. Shakespeare’s themes are so universal that his work has regularly been an inspiration for modern creative works, especially films. Examples include She’s All That and Ten Things I Hate about You (remakes of Taming of the Shrew), She’s the Man (Twelfth Night), in which the original plot changes little but the setting and style is contemporary.

Style often reflects aspects of the writer’s personality and character, and readers often identify with a particular writer’s style. If they like the style in one story, they will come to expect the same style in other stories by the same writer.

Most writers have a natural tendency to follow a particular style, and there is nothing wrong with maintaining a consistent style. Some writers will, however, develop an ability to vary their style according to the market they are writing for.

Some authors are concise and informative, but tend to be frugal in their use of adjectives. Such a style may be appropriate in a non-fiction book; or even fiction that demands conciseness (eg. a children’s story or a short story). Some writers tend to use simpler words. Others may choose to use more complex and challenging words, perhaps including words that not everyone would understand.

Developing your own style
When considering what style to adopt in your own writing, bear in mind that to some extent, style is driven naturally by things like your personality, your social perspective, your level of education or the amount of reading you do (which may influence things like your vocabulary etc), and your own vernacular. While aspiring to the style of one of your favourite authors is not necessarily a bad thing, it is best to develop your own “voice”. The more writing you do, the more your natural style will begin to emerge. Meanwhile, experiment and try a few different approaches to see what you are most comfortable with. You may find that you adopt a different style depending on the genre of writing you are working with. Be aware that if you write in a way that is very unnatural to you, it may sound forced, which will make it difficult to read.

ASPECTS OF STYLE

Style can vary according to tone, diction, grammar, conciseness, and preciseness.

Tone
Tone refers to the mood which the writing conveys. The tone could be sarcastic, cynical, serious, aloof, frivolous, humorous, sophisticated, unsophisticated, direct, indirect, imaginative...

Diction
Diction refers to the choice and use of words. Often you are faced with several options to say the same thing, for example:
Do you use a general term (eg “money”) or a specific term (eg “$100”) or a slang term (eg “moolah”, “dosh”).
Do you use formal language (eg “Good morning, how are you?”) or informal slang (eg “Hi, how’s it going?” or “Wazzup?”)?

Every time you write something, if you stop and analyse it, you should be able to think of alternative ways of saying the same thing. When you take the time to consciously consider the options, you will have greater control over the tone – and therefore, the effect – of your writing.

Grammar
Some writers are very careful to use correct grammar, whereas others are more relaxed in their approach. In most cases it is important to use the correct grammar. Editors will correct glaring errors, but they will not accept writing that is consistently clumsy and ungrammatical. This does not mean your writing has to be formal and stilted to be grammatical; rather it means your sentences should be correctly structured so that the writing is fluent and easy to understand.

The exception is when the writer intentionally uses poor grammar. This may be a stylistic device, where breaking the rules of grammar actually helps the story. The intention of the writer might be to create a sense of informality or spontaneity, in which case the sentences might be incorrectly structured, and the word choice and punctuation might not conform to the usual rules of correct grammar. The key to this approach maintaining its effectiveness is intentionality. Do not excuse poor grammar on the basis that it is a stylistic tool unless you can clearly explain what effect you were trying to achieve and why it was important to depart from standard language usage. Without intentionality, poor grammar is just poor grammar and it will make your work appear unprofessional.

Conciseness
Concise writing uses the minimum number of words to say something, without diminishing the content of what has been said. Concise writing can sound dry and clinical, but it does not necessarily need to be. Do not confuse being concise with eliminating feelings and emotions from writing.

If the intention is both to convey factual information and create a particular mood; concise writing should attempt to use minimal words but still maintain the mood as well as the factual information. You could use concise writing in a situation where you were trying to convey a sense of extreme tension, for example:

Sheree pressed against the pillar, lungs burning from exertion and the effort of trying to hold her breath. Her ragged gasps seemed deafening in the stillness of the deserted warehouse. Just metres away, the man stumbled in the darkness and a gleam of moonlight caught the barrel of his gun. Sheree shifted her weight from her injured left leg, sending a shower of fine sand sifting towards the floor with the sound of a faint sigh. The man turned sharply in her direction and she stifled the urge to scream.

We are not burdened by unnecessary description of the protagonist, the man, the warehouse, the night, and yet the reader is left with a clear impression of the atmosphere and the action. By using concise language designed to convey specific information, the drama and tension of the situation is heightened.

Preciseness
Precise writing is “definite” or “exact”. It is not vague. It never has unintended meanings. If there is a double meaning in something (i.e. two ways of interpreting it), then that double meaning is fully intended by the author.

Precise writing requires a logical and focused approach by the writer. Writing with precision is a good discipline as it will force you to think very clearly about the message you are trying to convey and to select your words carefully. Learning to write with precision will make you more conscious of times when your writing is imprecise. This will expand your repertoire as a writer, giving you options and thereby giving you greater control over the effect of your work.