All writers end up developing a novel writing style of their own. In years to come someone will find your writing and know you wrote it. Pick up an unknown book by an author you love, and within a few sentences you will know your favourite author wrote it. Writing style is intangible and difficult to describe, but we recognise it when we see it.
Because of its ephemeral nature, new authors may try developing a writing style by copying the style of their favourite author. That’s no bad thing, we can learn a lot from reading the works of others, but the more we write, the more our own style will come to the fore.
Writing textbooks are full of style guides and style rules, and they are worth knowing and keeping to. Like most artistic rules, there are exceptions, but if you are going to break the rules you need to have a good reason for doing so.
I am reminded of a sketch in which a comedian made a mess of a well-known tune on a piano he was playing in front of a famous conductor. The conductor told him he was playing the wrong note, but the comedian replied, “I’m playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.” The sketch was only funny because the tune being played on the piano did sound like the intended tune, but played badly. In order for the comedian to pull off the joke, he did have to be able to play the piano, and in order to fake playing it badly, he did have to be a good player.
The same is true of writing. There are rules, and you can break them, but you need to know them in order to break them. Readers can tell the difference between a writer who doesn’t know writing style rules, and a writer who does know all the rules but is deliberately breaking one of them.
Writing style rules are different to writing grammar rules. Grammar rules are the formal rules each one of us need to use in order to make our writing readable. Style rules are informal rules we need to use to make our writing enjoyable. Readers of novels need to enjoy reading your novel. Merely being able to read your sentences is not enough, you want them coming back for more.
When developing a novel writing style, your style should ensure readers enjoy the experience of reading.
Here’s just a few examples you need to consider:
Developing a novel writing style using familiar words.
Writing is a form of communication, so if readers don’t understand what you are writing you have failed in your primary task. If, instead of writing your main character ‘blushed’, you wrote they displayed signs of ‘erythrophobia’, you would soon lose your readers. The last thing your readers want to do is to keep having to look words up in a dictionary to see what they mean. If you’ve got a choice between an obscure word you know and a common word meaning the same thing, use the common word. Your readers will thank you for it.
Develop a brief novel writing style.
If there are two ways of describing the same thing, a long way and a brief way, use the brief way. Which would you prefer to read? “Placing one foot after the other he progressed across the highway,” (11 words) or “He crossed the road.” (4 words). The extra seven words add no extra information. They serve no purpose. That may seem an extreme example, but a book full of unnecessary information soon gets put down by readers.
“She looked with her eyes.” It is enough to write, “She looked.” She is hardly going to look with her nose.
“The dog followed the scent with its nose.” It is enough to write, “The dog followed the scent.”
“He lowered himself downward into the chair.” It is usually enough to write, “He sat down.”
Develop a novel writing style that uses Saxon words rather than Romance words.
If you’ve never come across the term Saxon words and Romance words before, you will need an explanation. This is a generality, but Saxon words are generally shorter words used in every-day speech. Romance words are generally longer words originating from Latin, and used in more formal writing.
Like all rules, there are exceptions, but in most cases your writing will be clearer if you use the every-day Saxon word rather than the more formal Romance word. Here are a few examples. The words on the left are the Saxon words:
Belly/abdomen, boss/superior, job/position, wish/desire, ask/inquire, buy/purchase, eat/consume, see/observe, talk/converse.
There is nothing wrong with the words on the right in each group. They are all perfectly valid English words, and there will be times it will be right to use them. However, unless you’ve got a good reason not too, you should use the shorter Saxon words on the left. They say the same thing, but quicker.
Develop a novel writing style that avoids adjectives, adverbs and abstract nouns.
The three A’s of adjectives, adverbs and abstract nouns are not bad in themselves, but their overuse is often a sign of poor writing style.
Up to now we’ve been emphasising brevity. Not using two words when one will do. This section is the opposite. Never use one word if more are needed.
Adjectives are words that modify nouns.
In the sentence “The dark night,” ‘night’ is the noun and ‘dark’ is the adjective. It sounds fine at first glance, but on closer examination the word ‘dark’ doesn’t tell us much about the night. How ‘dark’ is the night? Is it pitch black? Is there moonlight? Are there street lights? Is there starlight? The word ‘dark’ doesn’t tell us enough.
“It was night. The moon was hidden by black cloud and the feeble light from the street lamps left dark shadows between them.” Now I can visualise the night.
The word ‘dark’ is open to interpretation. The phrase ‘the moon was hidden by black cloud’ is more precise.
Adverbs are words that usually modify verbs.
In the same way adjectives are often insufficient to precisely describe a noun, an adverb is often insufficient to describe a verb.
In the sentence “He walked slowly” ‘walked‘ is the verb and ‘slowly’ is the adverb. Again, it may seem fine at first glance, but how slow is slowly? Did he stagger? Did he limp? Did he shuffle? Did he wander from side to side? Did he step gingerly? The word ‘slowly’ doesn’t tell us enough.
“The alcohol didn’t stop the man walking, but for every two steps forward he staggered one step backwards,” tells us much more.
Abstract nouns are nouns describing an idea or quality rather than something concrete.
These are words like time, love, beauty, happiness, goodness. Again, all these words are perfectly normal English words. There may be times when these words are enough, but sometimes they don’t give the reader enough information. ‘Time?’ How much? It can be long or short. ‘Love?’ I love my wife. I also love chocolate. The word ‘love’ isn’t enough to describe how I feel about my wife (or chocolate). ‘Beauty,’ is in the eye of the beholder. When developing your novel writing style, much better to describe why you believe someone is beautiful, than to simply say they are.
Develop your own novel writing style.
All the style points we’ve covered are variable, and none of them are set in stone. Using familiar words, writing briefly, using Saxon words, and avoiding adjectives, adverbs and abstract nouns are things you develop over time. Some writers pay more attention to one aspect than another, and no two authors ever write the same book however similar the subject.
When you first learned to write, you were conscious of how each letter of the alphabet was formed, then how letters could be joined into words, then how words could be joined into sentences. Eventually, you learned to write without giving it much thought.
Style is similar. You may begin self-consciously developing a writing style and following style rules, but eventually they become automatic. Just as my handwriting will be different to yours, so your style will be different to mine. We learn the same basic rules, but the time comes when we branch out on our own and develop our own novel writing style. At the end of the day, all that matters is that readers enjoy your story, and enjoy the way in which you have written it, whatever your style.