What Is Writing Style All About?
Updated: May 19, 2021
My all-time favorite musician is Buddy Holly. I discovered his music when I was about ten, when I first heard “Everyday” on the local oldies station. I immediately asked for a ride to Target, where my mom bought me a copy of Buddy’s greatest hits on cassette. That was 26 years ago. Since then, I’ve discovered hundreds of new artists and expanded my musical horizons far beyond the oldies station’s repertoire. Many of them even show clear influence from Buddy’s music.
But Buddy himself is one of a kind. His unique voice and style of guitar are instantly recognizable, as unique as the horn-rimmed glasses he wore despite being told that no artist who performed wearing glasses could ever be successful. However, it’s important to note that the Buddy Holly sound didn’t happen overnight. Before he was the dynamic front man of The Crickets, he was a rockabilly/country artist trying to make it big in Nashville with the famous Owen Bradley as his producer. Or at least he tried to. Growing up, Buddy was steeped in music ranging from bluegrass musician Bill Monroe to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson to Sun Records-era Elvis Presley. As a teenager, he and a friend, Bob Montgomery, performed around their hometown of Lubbock, Texas as a country/western duo. Therefore, it made sense that his first recordings in a real studio would be an homage to these influences, especially the country-edged early recordings of Elvis.
There was just one problem. The recordings weren't good.
Decca gave Buddy the boot after his first single failed to generate any real interest. Bradley even called Buddy “the biggest no-talent I’ve ever worked with.” Less than a year later, though, Buddy scored a number one hit with “That’ll Be The Day,” a song he originally recorded as part of the sessions with Bradley.
What made Buddy’s recordings for Decca so mediocre wasn’t that he didn’t have talent, contrary to Bradley’s beliefs.
The real problem was that he didn’t sound like Buddy Holly.
He sounded like he was imitating Elvis.
When Buddy stopped trying to sound like something else and started exploring what it meant to sound like himself, everything changed. When he finally developed his own musical style, the influences of Elvis, country music, bluegrass, and gospel music were still there. But so was the creative, innovative musicianship that Buddy brought to the table for himself. Okay, so at this point you’re probably wondering what Buddy Holly has to do with writing style. Actually, quite a lot.
That’s because real transformation for your writing happens when you determine what you do best, where it comes from, and how to do as much of it as possible.
So What Is Style, Anyway?
Style is a term that simply describes how someone writes. It comprises a variety of different elements, which include, but are not limited to:
· Sentence structure
· Word choice
· Use of description and figurative language
· Subject matter
All writers have these same tools in their belt, but they use them in different ways.
Style comes from how you use the tools to fit the stories you want to tell.
Think about the great authors we study in writing and literature classes. Ernest Hemingway is famous for his use of very short sentences with sparse detail, leaving a great deal of distance between the reader and the characters and a lot of room to imagine their circumstances. Jane Austen’s novels use an artful third person omniscient narration that strategically provides commentary on what different characters are thinking or feeling.
Edgar Allan Poe is known for suspenseful stories that evoke fear, intrigue, and horror. Each of these writers has a distinctive writing style that makes them instantly recognizable. If you were given passages from their work with the names removed, you could probably make a good guess at who wrote them.
How To Find (& Not To Find) Your Style
A common mistake that new writers make is to deliberately imitate the things they like. This isn’t altogether a bad thing (more on this later), but imitation for the sake of imitation won’t get you very far. As I mentioned earlier, the goal of developing your style is to discover how you use your tools the best for the types of stories you tell. By imitating someone else, you are merely copying how they use the tools, not discovering this for yourself. It will also be obvious that you’re doing this. The worst part about imitation is that it never leads you toward finding your style. It just leads you to being a bad copy of someone else.
Having addressed that giant “do-not,” here are some “do’s” for discovering what your writing style is…
Read a ton.
Several months back, I wrote a post about Taylor Swift’s quarantine albums as they relate to J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “the leaf mould of the mind.” You can read the whole thing here, but the gist of it is that just as moss, leaves, and dirt form layers of compost on the floor of a forest, our life experiences, including the books, music, films, and art we admire, form their own layers of influence in our minds, which then play out in the art we create. So much of the act of writing originates in the unconscious mind, and that includes the works that influence what we make. A friend in my writing group recently paid me the amazing compliment that my work reminds her of Flannery O’Connor, my favorite author. I wasn’t trying to sound like Flannery. I wasn’t even writing anything that was particularly Flannery-esque. Yet, the fact that I’ve intensively studied her writing naturally seeped into what I wrote. What you read shapes your writing style, but it has to happen on the terms of your unconscious creativity. You can’t force it.
Nothing looks more forced than someone who is deliberately trying to write like someone else. It’s literary karaoke.
Model what you read.
But wait! I hear you say. Didn’t you just tell me not to imitate what I read?
Yes. Yes, I did. But there’s a difference between a model and an imitation.
I took a writing workshop in grad school where every week, we had to turn in a story that was somehow inspired by our assigned reading. We could try a technique that the author used, write about a similar topic, or create a story that originated as a result of thinking about the work itself.
At the end of the semester, I was astonished by the diversity of the stories I wrote in the class. I think it is good practice every time you read a book to respond to it in some way. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. It doesn’t even have to be a complete story.
Write a short scene from your current work in progress where you try something new with language, point of view, or characterization based on what you just read.
If you prefer, just write a review on Goodreads where you analyze what you appreciated about the author’s writing style. The main idea is that if you are going to develop your writing style, you need to read with a critical eye that will help you determine what you do and do not like in that author’s work, as well as what tools work best for what you are creating.
The more you read and the more you write, the clearer your own set of tools will be.
Bonus: The flip side of discovering and honing your style is also that your writing will become easier to edit.
It will give you a clearer idea of how to craft your work on the sentence level so that there is greater unity throughout the entire piece. Want to learn more about finding your writing style? Grab a copy of my free Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, a collection of prompts, worksheets, templates, and more for diving into your new book idea and discovering how to tell the story your way. Click here to request one now.