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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