Note: The following article is based on a recent conversation I had with a writer I mentor regarding style. While it’s been heavily edited to read like an article, this is the gist of what I said.
There’s an important step on the way to developing your own style and voice as a writer: learn how to write good prose. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think they can sidestep this requirement altogether. Sure, it’s difficult. Anything worth doing is difficult. Anything worth doing will make you stretch, both as a student of the craft and as a person in general. The good news is that much of this process is well-documented by masters of the craft. It’s simply a matter of allowing yourself to learn and grow.
But there’s a pitfall along the way. And that pitfall will guarantee you learn and improve the least. You’ll know you’ve fallen into it when you’re tempted to chalk everything up to a “stylistic choice”.
You’ve heard people do this. When you offer constructive criticism, they’ll say things like this:
- “I’m stringing multiple adverbs together here because that’s my style.”
- “I’m going to pepper my paragraphs with ellipses and EM-dashes because that’s my style.”
- “Proper comma usage isn’t my style.”
- “Plot and structure cramp my style. I need to be free of those arbitrary constraints.”
What these writers don’t realize is before they can strike off in their own direction as a master of the craft, they actually have to MASTER THE CRAFT.
I’m not talking about specific word choices. Deciding on “calm” over “placid” is a stylistic choice. Deciding to use “said” instead of “asked” is a stylistic choice. Deciding on a point of view can be a stylistic choice. The way you choose to pace a particular scene can be a stylistic choice.
But bolstering every noun with an adjective and every adjective with an adverb is NOT a stylistic choice. It’s horrible writing.
How can I say that with such certainty? Because I’m a student of the craft and have been for decades. Because masters of the craft discovered readers do not respond well to those constructs. Because readers subjected to this type of writing often report feeling as if they were floating through “grey space” without any solid, concrete details to hold on to.
Because when I read a sentence like “The burly almost barrel-chested man purposefully infuriatingly, though not altogether surprisingly, struck the shiny, sparkling, golden bell with a heavy hammer,” I want to strike YOUR friggin’ golden bell with a heavy hammer.
<takes deep breath>
I had to learn these lessons too. The hard way. It was painful and time-consuming. But it was worth it.
Some people are simply born with a knack for putting beautiful words on paper. They get it right the first time out of the gate. Those people are few and far between. They’re prodigies. The rest of us have to study the craft and implement what we’ve learned over a course of years before we can even call ourselves journeymen.
There’ll come a time, after you’ve (we’ve) mastered the craft that you’ll look back on your early work and cringe. What you once thought was a clever construct is really nothing more than bad prose. And that will be a very happy day, because it will mean you’ve taken the time to improve as a writer.
If you’re not a master yourself, stop fighting the masters!
Consider physical exercise. A trainer will teach you the correct way to do a particular exercise. And it will feel HORRIBLE at first. Your body will fight you every step of the way. It’s not the way you naturally move. But if you start fighting the trainer at that point, and you start teaching yourself how to do the exercise a different way, all you’ll end up doing is a) picking up a bad habit, and b) injuring yourself in the process.
Why? Because you do not yet possess the unconscious mastery required to modify the exercise in a way that is not only productive, but ingenious.
Sticking with your own style is incredibly important. It’s exactly what you should do. You should never allow someone to talk you out of your natural style or water down your writer’s voice. But until you learn the conventions of good prose, you deviate from them at your own peril.
Don’t break a rule until you understand it. Learn the rules of grammar…then break them like a pro. But start with learning. #writetip
— Nat Russo (@NatRusso) January 20, 2016
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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Excellent article. And for those of used to taking criticism, who eagerly seek it, we have to decide where the line is between voice and grammar. When in doubt, I usually try to implement criticism (most often a cut–I tend to overwrite). Let it sit. Come back to it weeks or months later and decide if I miss my original words. If their absence is felt–something like an ache–I put them back. But it’s far more common that the cut stands. 🙂
You raise an excellent point about gaining distance from your work. It’s imperative that we don’t act on criticism (for or against) the moment we receive it. I think we can only be somewhat objective when we gain a healthy distance.
Excellent advice from both of you. I’ve recently been reworking the manuscript I published a few years ago (via a vanity publisher – ouch!) with a view to re-releasing it in the summer. Having not looked at it for three years, I came back to it with a clear head, realised how wordy and badly edited it was (ouch!) and have since cut out a whopping 40,000 words. However, parts ended up reading like the skeleton of a story; I’d cut all its flesh off, so yes, some of those words had to go back.
Whenever I receive criticism, I shut down my computer and do something I enjoy for at least an hour before I even think about replying. By that time my pleasant activity has relaxed me and I can respond constructively. I am of course talking about constructive criticism here – if someone’s merely said, ‘Your writing’s crap’ then I ask them to qualify their comment, and if they fail to do so, I ignore them.
That’s a great strategy!
I was in a similar boat with the first draft of Necromancer Awakening. My target word count was 120k, but the draft weighed in at 180k. I had to cut 60k words!
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I’ve experienced something similar to “…bolstering every noun with an adjective and every adjective with an adverb is NOT a stylistic choice. It’s horrible writing.” I can only assume I had been talking to a youngster, by the writing he wanted me to read and his response to my suggesting he lose most of his words ending with “-ly.” He responded, and I felt he may have been a bit offended, with the sentiment of it being his style. I couldn’t read it, so backed out of giving any more suggestions.
As for my writing, long ago, I began weeding out adjectives- for the most part; some just have to stay in- and trying to use words I found using the Thesaurus. Long words. College words?
I definitely agree that a writer shouldn’t realistically strive to eliminate them all. There’s really no such thing as a “bad” part of speech. I’ve also done something similar (pulling out of reading a work). If it appears that the writer isn’t interested in really learning the craft, it’s a waste of time for both of us.
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Great advice! It’s hard to take criticism, sure. It’s dropped my ego down a peg or eighteen before, and it’s the one thing that has led me to consider (however briefly) quitting writing (or at least the goals of publishing side of it). But ultimately, it’s been one of my greatest tools in developing as a writer.
Good points. People who resist just make it take longer before they’re better writers. I’ve had to learn through many hours of practice, reading, and taking workshops. I even took a grammar course.
It really does just drag out the process, doesn’t it? The odd thing is it is typically the novice writer who does this, when they of all people should be open to advice.