By Jesse Hines of Robust Writing
Most of us who are writers of any kind (journalists, authors, bloggers, students, freelancers, whatever) want to write with style. After all, most of us enjoy reading stylish writing.
We’d love to be the next Faulkner, Hemingway, or (insert your favorite writer). We’d love to write in a way that expresses our unique personality and grabs our readers’ attention, captivating them with our powerful ideas and soaring command of the language.
We’d love to write with such style and power that our readers are attracted to our writing, fall in love with it, and praise it. We want to stand out instead of remaining mired with the majority of bland writers out there.
We all want that. Well, many of us do (count me in for certain). If you don’t, more power to you, but I wonder why you’re writing. Let’s face it: writing is self-expression and self-expression is narcissistic and narcissism is sort of the default mode of humanity. Harsh? Yeah, but it’s true. Moving on…
I believe there are two primary false beliefs many writers have about style. Have you fallen prey to either or both of these?
1. That stylish writers are born that way. One either possesses the ability to write with grandeur or one doesn’t. If you don’t come by stylish writing naturally, you’ll never be able to write that way.
2. This belief rebuts the first, declaring “Yes we can!” write with style regardless of our genes. But…it says that developing the ability to do so takes years of intense, painstaking, rigorous learning and practice. It says that anyone can write with style if they are willing to learn the tricks and methods–and put in 50 years or so before the style takes hold.
This much is indeed true: some writers are simply (and seemingly naturally) much, much better than you or I or most of our fellow scribes. Why? Who knows? Who cares? Let’s focus on us right now (that narcissism thing again, you know).
You can write with style, right now (and skip all the writing tricks books and decades of painful practice), by following these three easy ways to write with style.
Really. Writing with style is not that mysterious or hard to do. Doubt me? Here we go.
Point #1: Be Yourself
In The Elements of Style, authors William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, write:
“Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, ‘Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.’…[S]tyle is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style.” [Bold emphasis mine]
The truth is, we already write with style–our own style. Think about it. Some of your favorite writers may not necessarily write all that beautifully and majestically, but they have an interesting personality, strong views, and an ability to connect with you.
That’s really all you need to do: be yourself. Write the way you naturally speak–that is your unique style. It’s you coming through the words to your readers, who eventually, will come to recognize your way of communicating as unique to you.
Compare the two authors I mentioned earlier, Faulkner and Hemingway. They have very different writing styles, but they’re both highly regarded. Faulkner wrote long, descriptive, ornate sentences; Hemingway wrote short, to-the-point sentences. Each man’s style worked for him.
So should yours work for you.
As long as you have something valuable to say, just say it in your own voice, and as time rolls on, you’ll find that you’ve developed a writing style you can call your own. And that’s style.
You’ll need to pair being yourself with point number two, though, for this to really work.
Point #2: Focus on Clearly Presenting Your Message
Many writers get hung up on word choice when they try to write with style, and get bogged down fiddling with this word or that, ultimately throwing up their hands in frustration because “it just doesn‘t sound stylish.”
The solution? Do not try to write with style. Ever. You almost never will when you’re really trying to. As noted earlier, you already have a style. You already have words you like to use more than others, words that come naturally to you; you already have expressions you love or temperaments you write in (maybe you’re a happy-go-lucky, inspirational type or maybe you’re a low-key, matter-of-factly type).
So let that be that and, instead of fussing about with particular words, just focus on expressing your meaning as clearly as you possibly can. Write so that your readers know exactly what you’re saying.
When you consistently combine your unique personality (which we all have) with a clearly stated (worthwhile) message, trust me, you’re well on the way to writing with style.
It’s when we deliberately set out to impress our readers with our flourishing prose that we begin to over-think every little thing and stifle our creativity and personality. Forget it. Just write exactly what you want to say so that anyone can get it, and let the style take care of itself.
Again, Strunk and White nail it:
“The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style–all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” [Emphasis mine]
The idea is similar to what C.S. Lewis wrote concerning originality:
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” [Emphasis mine]
Point #3: Read Widely, Especially Books and Magazine Feature Articles
By reading regularly and widely, you organically expand your vocabulary and become aware of many different ways of joining words and phrases together. If you’re in the long-time habit of voraciously reading, you’ll find that as you write, your mind will, naturally, produce more stylish ways of expressing things.
You won’t have to hunt through the dictionary; you’ll be drawing on much wider and richer varieties of expression–without the painstaking effort. But you have to read for this to happen.
And you have to read books and magazines that run in-depth feature-length articles. Why? Because that’s where you’ll usually find the best writers. These folks are getting paid (often pretty good) while most bloggers are not.
Again, reality time: it’s usually big news when a blogger gets a book deal, but no one cares when a book author starts a blog.
Yes, read blogs, such as the one you’re reading–Write to Done is a very good resource for writers. Blogging has its own style (which all writers need to be aware of), but perhaps because of the skim and scan nature of the Web (and the fact that anyone can publish on a blog), the level of writing and scope of vocabulary in the blogosphere usually isn’t as high as it is in magazines or books.
Also, by reading many different writers, and really engaging in their ideas, you enhance your critical thinking skills as well as your imaginative firepower, both of which enable you to develop a richer personality, which is what you really want to shine through in your writing anyway, as we noted in point #1.
It Really Is Easy to Write With Style
See? Writing with style isn’t that hard. You don’t need to tackle all kinds of writing textbooks or spend years penning away before you can even begin to stylize your prose.
Just do it the easy way:
1. Be yourself and write the way you normally speak
2. Focus on getting your message across clearly; forget about style altogether
3. Read regularly and widely
Really, what’s easier than being yourself, saying exactly what you mean, and reading?
There are other ways, of course, to write with style, but we’re talking about easy things here, things anyone can do right now.
Do you know of any other easy ways we can write with style?
If you would like to read more by Jesse Hines, head off to Robust Writing
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