When I was a high school senior, I crushed hard on a pair of silver Chucks in our mall’s shoe store. Those sneakers sparkled under the fluorescents like they were calling to my punk, grunge-girl heart. I can’t tell you how much they cost, only that they cost more than I could afford.
For months, I visited them and daydreamed about the compliments I’d get and how well they’d go with my thrift-store skirts—especially the ones I called my granny camo.
I still think those Chucks are pretty rad, but I’m now at an age where my shoes need arches.
Some of you might be thinking, silver Chucks, really?
If you are, that’s great! Style—whether it’s in clothing or writing—is extremely personal.
In writing, style involves word choice, sentence structure, and rhythm. While authenticity, truth, and perspective require you to explore something inside of yourself, style is definitely a skill learned over time.
When I think of writing style, three authors come to mind.
First, there’s twentieth-century poet e.e. cummings, who wrote
may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she
Cummings refused to capitalize anything, including the letter I, in hopes of decreasing the importance of the self in his work.
Then there’s the Hemmingway/Faulkner debate. Faulkner famously wrote a 1,288-word run-on sentence in Absalom, Absalom! Hemmingway’s spartan style is frequently associated with a six-word story—For sale: baby shoes, never worn—that may not actually be his.
While modern audiences tend to prefer leaner writing (check out the Hemmingway Editor App) you don’t have to become a Hemmingway disciple. You do need to understand your style.
Here’s your inner work:
Scroll through your files and select a piece of writing that exemplifies your best work. Print a hard copy.
Next, record yourself reading the piece out loud.
Close your eyes and play the recording. Listen to the rhythm of your sentences. Do they gallop, trot along, or lazily amble by? Do certain sounds stand out?
Now, play the recording while you follow along with your hard copy. What do you notice about the length of your sentences and your use of white space? What on the page enhances your story?
Here’s your outer work:
Choose three authors you admire. Copy a few paragraphs of their work by hand. Handwriting each word will help you get a feel for the writing and the length of the writer’s sentences.
Record yourself reading this work. Close your eyes and listen to your recording. What do you notice?
Listen back again while following along with your hard copy. See anything else?
Jot down your answers and reflect on what they tell you about your own writing style.
Here’s your writing work:
Consider writing some of your prose in a favorite author’s style to see how it feels. Then try another author. Notice what feels authentic. Ditch anything that doesn’t seem to work. Then practice, practice, practice your art form.
While I hope you’ll focus largely on writers in your genre, be sure to check out On Writing Well by William Zinsser. And, while you’re at it, subscribe to Poetry Daily and see how poets approach this work.
Which authors do you turn to when learning about style? Send me their names. I’d love to know, and your answer might inspire someone else.