The Write Stuff--Part 7: Establishing a Style

You can borrow writing techniques, but your personality must be your own.

When I was growing up, I wanted to write like Mr. Rodente. He was my seventh-grade math teacher. The notes he gave me to take home to my parents were simple and straightforward. I know that because I used to read them before tearing them into little pieces.

Mr. Rodente was strict and a bit of an elitist, but he would never pad his prose with excess verbiage like, "Your son, Michael, often seems to be somewhat perplexed by certain routine and well-established aspects of long division," or "I would like very much to meet with you, at your earliest convenience, regarding your son, Michael, and his apparent difficulty with multiplication tables often mastered by many of our students who are even younger than your aforementioned son." Nope, he'd just say, "Mike's not getting what I'm trying to teach." I liked how he used small words, because I didn't know any big ones except supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (I can't believe my spell-checker didn't flag that; Bill Gates must be a big-time Mary Poppins fan).

Using smaller words and fewer words sometimes seems like the opposite of what's expected of us as authors. In school, not only did we get positive reinforcement for expanding our vocabularies, but we were also tasked with writing assignments that specified minimum numbers of words or pages. Rarely did our teachers tell us, "Hey, I want quality, not quantity. Just write what you feel." (I might have heard that right after Woodstock. I don't remember, and neither would that teacher.)

The way we use written language is style. Each of us is entitled to our own, although more commonly we mimic the styles of others. That's a bad idea--well, mostly. If I tried to channel the clarity of novelists Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, I might shorten my text and save a few trees, but my manuscripts would read like the worst, rather than the best, of a Hemingway-King-Rubin amalgam. (I'm quite sure that's the only time you'll see Hemingway, King and Rubin mentioned in the same sentence.) When imitating others, our weaknesses are more noticeable than our strengths.

There's no such thing as a best way to write. Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Dickens are both revered, successful authors with huge audiences, but their styles are completely different. Fans might debate their talents, but the beliefs and perspectives of those literary superstars distinguish them more than their abilities.

Pick an author: To write like, say, Dickens, with the subtlety and imagery he bundles into his work, you'd have to be Dickens--not a good career move, considering he died two centuries ago. Besides, it's frustrating and unnecessary to try being someone else.

Borrow techniques without trying to replicate talent. Let your writing "personality" evolve. And, according to King, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot." The former exposes you to styles that work well enough to impress editors, publishers and audiences; the latter lets you sculpt those examples into something distinctive.

What else do you need to stake your own style? Here are a few reader-friendly guidelines that might help:

Change tempos--Being an effective writer isn't just about brevity; try varying the lengths of clauses, sentences and paragraphs. It's harder to keep an audience's attention when the rhythm of the language is plain and predictable. Grab the textbook of your choice for examples.

Tone vs. content--I'm going out on a limb here: What you say isn't as important as how you say it. OK, there are exceptions--prescriptions, protocols and divorce settlements--but I don't think your readers would find any of those entertaining (maybe I should keep an open mind about divorce settlements).

Consider music. Don't we notice melodies before lyrics? By the time we start thinking about what a song says, we've already judged how it sounds. I think it's the same with text.

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