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Developing Your Writing Style

Tips to Keep in Mind for Your Writing Style Now

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To a certain extent, your writing style -- the manner in which you express yourself -- evolves naturally over time, a combination of your personality, your reading choices, and to a certain extent, the decisions you make consciously while writing.

So what can you do to develop your writing style? Thinking about style too consciously can result in mannered, stilted prose, but there are some basic style rules to keep in mind as you begin to write:

  1. Read to develop your writing style.

    Read voraciously, and read broadly. Read the classics -- great literature is your best teacher -- but don't be afraid of contemporary or genre fiction, either. "Young or beginning writers must be urged to read widely, ceaselessly, both classics and contemporaries," writes Joyce Carol Oates in The Faith of a Writer, "for without an immersion in the history of the craft, one is doomed to remain an amateur . . . "
  2. Write.

    There's no substitute for simply writing as much as you can. In the beginning, don't worry so much about publishing; that can come later. Attempt different genres. Nonfiction and especially poetry have something to teach as well. Again, don't worry about influence in the beginning, and don't worry if what you're writing seems bad. Write because you love it, and trust that you'll grow into your style.
  3. Use the words that come naturally to you.

    Though you should strive to enlarge your vocabulary, stick to words you use in real life. If you're using a word only to sound impressive, you're likely to misuse it or use it awkwardly.
  4. Be clear.

    Your goal is to communicate. Make sure each sentence is as direct and simple as possible. You want to make it easy for your readers so that they have the pleasure of getting lost in your prose. Awkward writing takes readers out of the fictional dream you're working so hard to create.
  5. Avoid stereotypes and cliches.

    Though it's hard to avoid stereotypes altogether, struggle to craft original sentences, metaphors, and expressions. Think twice before going with the easiest turn of phrase unless anything else would sound unnatural.
  6. Be concise.

    Experiment with individual sentences, seeing if they can be rephrased to use fewer words. Don't say, "He walked across the sidewalk with the cracked cement to the field," when you can say, "He walked across the cracked sidewalk to the field," for instance. Or, for another example, don't say, "Make sure each sentence is composed as directly and as simply as possible," when you can say "Make sure each sentence is as direct and simple as possible."
  7. Be precise.

    Clear, detailed writing will make your prose come to life. Struggle to find just the right words for your descriptions. If necessary, do a little research. There's great pleasure in knowing the name for things, and in using those names. Saying that "The grey-haired woman sat by the window tatting a doily," for instance, is more descriptive and more vivid than, "The old woman sat in the corner working on something." Precision is not a matter of filling a sentence with modifiers, however. It's a question of choosing the best, most accurate nouns and verbs. (See this exercise on modifiers, to work on this now.)
  8. Pay attention to word choice.

    The English language has at least 250,000 words, more than "most comparable world languages," according to the folks at Oxford. Because English is such a mutt of a language, we almost always have synonyms at our disposal. Buy a good thesaurus and make the most of our rich linguistic heritage.

As a writer, you will also make choices about things like figurative language. While you're thinking about style, review some of those basic literary terms, such as metaphor (along with an exercise creating metaphors), simile, and irony. Getting familiar with the tools at your disposal will also help you develop your style.

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