What makes up an author’s writing style? You’d think it would be skillful writing. But all too often, authors are told weak writing habits are excusable—and sometimes even worthy of acclaim—because they represent hallmarks of the author’s individuality and style.
Don’t be fooled by such shenanigans.
Spare us the tired tales of how This Bestselling Author head-hops with abandon and she still sells, or how That Bestselling Author uses comma splices to add a breathless sense of urgency to his story and he still sells. “Good enough to still sell” isn’t exactly a benchmark worth shooting for.
But neither is style about conformity to some imaginary set of rules. Good editors aren’t interested in making your writing sound like theirs. We want to help your writing voice bloom without the authorial parlor tricks. We don’t want you to publish a book full of slapdash writing because you can get away with it; we want you to publish a book of confident, polished writing because you know how.
Why comma splices aren’t style
Bad grammar and punctuation is neither quirky nor amazing. Writing mechanics and story techniques like maintaining a consistent point of view throughout a scene share much in common with traffic rules. Traffic rules work because when we all agree to follow them, they keep us from running each other off the road.
The same holds true for punctuation. Readers open your pages expecting to be able to navigate according to certain conventions. If you leave them to wander aimlessly across the page or keep running them off track, readers will eventually decide the story isn’t worth cracking the nut of your bizarre writing.
Breaking all the rules
But some authors’ styles do break the rules. How do they pull it off? Style that breaks the rules does so to make a point—but keep in mind that very few points take eighty thousand words to make. We’ve all read books with “quirky” punctuation or sentence structure that felt fresh and daring at the outset but downright frustrating hundreds of pages later.
Before you embark upon some tricksy technique that twists your writing in unexpected ways, ask yourself who will benefit. What’s the advantage of jarring readers or making them work harder to follow what you’re trying to say? Unconventional writing calls attention to itself. It forces readers to focus more on making sense of your approach than appreciating your story.
But aren’t there works of literary merit that bend language and writing conventions to their own ends? Of course there are. And well-read readers instantly distinguish between a literary effect and words thrown sloppy-joe-style onto the page. Bad mechanics shouldn’t be a hallmark of your personal writing style.
What is writing style?
So if “distinctively alternative” language isn’t a desirable mark of style, what is? I like the way Dave Hood at Find Your Creative Muse breaks style and tone into four points: style, tone, narrative voice, and writer’s voice. Authors can find plenty to aspire to here.
Editor Beth Hill serves up a list of writing choices that frequently typify an author’s writing style. Her choices include things like accenting repetition in words or phrases or patterns, or using long, involved complex sentences (or not). While some of these choices may create denser, more complex writing, you won’t find techniques designed intentionally to throw readers off track. That wouldn’t be style; that would be poor writing.
Hood concludes with a handy checklist of steps authors can take to help develop an individual writing voice, beginning with style. Rule #1: “Learn to write well. Learn the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And then learn when to break those rules.” That comes with experience. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep studying your craft.
Spotlight on your story
You can still decide to write an entire book filled with breezy run-on sentences or head-hopping. Just be ready for feedback come beta reading and editing time. Be prepared if readers and editors aren’t quite as enamored of the effect as you are. With so many ways to build a distinctive authorial style without getting in readers’ way, why not tuck the framework of your writing into the background so readers can enjoy your story instead?
Ready to hire an editor? That editor could be me! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s talk about how my editing could help your book.