Addressing the Question of Your Creative Writing Style

By Maggie Hamand

When you come to revise your written work, you often find that the style has evolved from the beginning to the end, so that you have to go back and rewrite the beginning in the style of the last chapters. But what exactly do writers mean when they talk about developing their writing style or improving their style?

Style refers to the way a piece of writing is written, rather than to its content, and writing style is generally considered to be a writer’s individual and unique voice. It’s connected to the way writers put their sentences together, with long fluid sentences or short choppy ones, the use of imagery or plain prose, and whether the prose has a conversational tone or a formal one.

Style choices aren’t a matter of being right or wrong: they’re about the writer’s personality and what’s appropriate to the chosen subject matter. The style of a piece of writing can also be a matter of the character’s personality – in a first-person narrative, the character’s voice is usually being expressed; in a third-person narrative, where the point of view is limited to one character, elements of that character’s voice can also influence the style.

The style of a piece of writing also depends on the intended audience. A literary novel may be written for a small number of highly educated people and use complex sentence structure and obscure words, whereas a crime thriller aimed at a wide audience may use simple, direct prose.

When editing your work, look out for lapses where you use a word that’s wrong for the kind of tone you’ve adopted or where the style changes unintentionally. In particular, look out for the kinds of words that seem to creep into a piece of writing when people would never use them in real-life speech: ‘peruse’, ‘perambulate’ and ‘utilise’, for example.

People have different tastes in writing. Some people like simple, rhythmic, pared-down sentences, while others like dense, muscular prose. Whichever style you adopt, though, sentences should flow in a way that makes them easy to read and understand. Henry James writes incredibly long and complicated sentences, but if you read them aloud, they sing.

Ernest Hemingway is known for his simple, direct, unelaborated style. His prose tends to use a lot of repetition, and sentences are often linked by strings of ‘and’. Hemingway’s sentences often sound as if they’d been written in Spanish – a language he knew well – and then directly translated without any attempt to make them sound more English.

In contrast, Charles Dickens writes in rich and elaborate prose, sometimes going into incredible detail, using many adjectives and imagery, such as metaphors and similes, as well as poetic techniques such as personification. He has a great ear for dialogue and at imitating the voices of many characters from different walks of life and who speak different dialects.

Try writing the same passage in a variety of different styles.