While I’ve written articles about writing style in the past, they were designed mostly to define what style is and didn’t provide much help for improvement. This article contains some practical tips I’ve discovered that will actually help you improve your style and hopefully provide a foundation for why good style matters. I believe good style is important for many reasons, but mostly because I want my readers to feel like the time they spent with my story was worthwhile, pleasant, and maybe even a little enlightening.
“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction.” – Steve Almond
“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” – Kurt Vonnegut
1) Be clear.
“To be clear is the first duty of a writer; to charm and to please are graces to be acquired later.” – Brander Matthews
In order to clearly convey an idea to your reader, you have to first work out a few things. A) What are you trying to say? And what story are you trying to tell? If you don’t know, you’ll never be able to capture it clearly in words. B) What words will most clearly and concisely impart your meaning?
I will pose that it is better to use a few well-chosen and potentially blunt words to say exactly what you mean than it is to use an abundance of fluffy, highfalutin words while sacrificing clarity. After all, writing is about communicating an idea, isn’t it? Clarity is a mark of good communication.
“Words are like sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” – Ernest Hemingway
Don’t say more than you need to say, and don’t say in three sentences or three paragraphs what you can say in one. Your readers’ time is valuable; don’t waste it. On the flip side, if your story takes time to tell, take the time to tell it. Don’t rush when you shouldn’t rush. But don’t meander when you should keep a steady clip.
This is also known as pacing, and pacing encompasses more than just what words you use in a sentence. It also encompasses story structure, but in the context of style, try to use as few words as possible to get your true meaning across. Use the right words, and condensation should become natural.
3) Use vibrant language.
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
If your goal is to write as clearly as possible with as few words as possible, you will more than likely have already developed a taste for using vibrant words. It’s a natural progression. But more than that, vibrant language is what brings a story to life—not just with the words you use but also the phrases and metaphors and how you string it all together.
This is the basic definition of style: How you use words and language to tell a written story. Good style is the use of vibrant words and phrasing in a way that moves up and down with its own sort of beat. This rhythm becomes the heartbeat of your story and brings it to life. If your words and beat are dull, it will come across as boring and lifeless.
Dull language: The last time I tried to talk to her about my problems, she started cursing very loudly in a public place and said some really awful things about Nikki. - The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Vibrant language: When I last attempted to consult her about my problems, she began cursing violently inside a Starbucks and bashed Nikki’s good name against the wall. We got kicked out.
See the difference?
Side note 1: Don’t write in short, choppy sentences for any extended length of time. By “extended length of time,” I mean more than one sentence. They pack a powerful punch and should only be used when you want your words to produce that effect. Using lots of them as your “style” really knocks the wind out of readers, and a heartbeat that quick isn’t healthy for your story.
Side note 2: I think it goes without saying at this point that you should not use cliché phrases. If you find yourself using them, please stop and take the time to word them more originally and more vibrantly.
4) Keep adjectives and adverbs scarce.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King
In keeping with the use of vibrant language, I will say something that may be considered a little “out there” to people like Mr. King: You should use adjectives and adverbs to flavor your story. They should be zesty and spicy and legitimately add taste you can’t produce any other way.
Basically, don’t use adjectives and adverbs if there are other words to say what you want to say. They were never designed to be the meat of your writing. For proof, here are their definitions from the Oxford Dictionary:
Adjective - a word or phrase naming an attribute, added to or grammatically related to a noun to modify or describe it.
In other words, if you have to add to a noun by using an adjective, there’s probably a better noun out there that you should be using.
Adverb - a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective or verb.
Basically an adjective for verbs. If you find yourself using one, again, try to find a better verb and avoid the modifier altogether.
If you use vibrant language, you will most likely use verbs and nouns that don’t need added to or modified to begin with. However, there are some nouns and verbs in the English language that are just plain boring, and there’s no way to get around it. In such cases, spicing them up with a modifier is a good idea and will actually bring vibrancy to your writing.
Bland adjective use: The air was very hot.
Zesty adjective use use: The air was scorching.
Even better: The air scorched her lungs.
5) Keep your story in the active voice. Or don’t?
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
There’s a lot of confusion out there about using the “active voice” versus the “passive voice,” and I don’t think a lot of people really understand what they’re talking about or why using the active voice is considered “better.”
I’ll let you in on a little-know secret: Using the active voice brings the subject of your sentence, which is usually your character, into focus. Stories are about characters, so naturally you should construct your sentences in a way that keeps them in the limelight.
But what about when you’re writing a section that is not focused on the character? Then should you still use the active voice? No, not necessarily. Using the passive voice to put the subject of your sentence in the background is a powerful tool, much like the focus of a camera in filmmaking. It tells your audience what is important and on what they should be focusing.
HOWEVER. If you don’t know how to use the active and passive voices to properly creative this effect, you’re most likely misusing it, and a lot of your story may be out of focus.
Now for a quick English lesson.
Voice indicates whether the subject of your sentence is acting or being acted upon.
Active voice indicates that the subject of the verb is doing something.
Example: He mowed the lawn.
Passive voice indicates that the subject of the verb is being acted upon by an “off camera” force and uses a “to be” verb.
Example: The lawn was mowed.
Here’s a list of common to be verbs for reference: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, has, have, and had.
Do you see how this can be a powerful tool to bring characters info focus or push them into the background of invisibility?
When people say to “use the active voice,” what they’re really trying to say is to “keep your character the focus of your writing.” And they’re absolutely right—when you want your character to be the focus. When you don’t, skillfully using the passive voice to pull the focus away from them is not only a good idea but also a little brilliant. But you have to know what you’re doing.
As a general rule, use the active voice whenever you want the subject of your sentence to be in focus, which should be most of the time. When you want the subject to be hidden or mysterious, use the passive voice.
I’ve got a couple of examples. The first is a badly written bit of passive voice with verbs underlined for emphasis:
The fat men are outside of the tent with Scott, and they are yelling at someone hidden by their collective girth. A huge school bus is painted green—it’s running, and the driver is inching toward our tent. On the hood of the bus is a portrait of Brian Dawkin’s bust, and the likeness is incredible. … This early in the afternoon, the parking spaces are plentiful, so I wonder what the argument is about. - The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Kinda boring, right? To be verbs are some of the blandest and most boring verbs in the English language, so using the active voice will force you stop using them and to instead use more interesting verbs, which is basically guaranteed to liven up your writing.
Here’s the same paragraph converted into the active tense:
Two fat men stand outside the tent with Scott and yell at someone hidden by their collective girth. A huge green school bus—still running—inches toward our tent, and its hood displays a portrait of Brain Dawkin with disturbing likeness. This early in the afternoon, parking spaces abound, so I wonder what they’re arguing about.
See the shift? While this doesn't put the character himself into any greater focus, it does put the focus onto the sentences’ subjects and create a somewhat more vibrant paragraph with a little more rhythm to it.
Now for an example of well-composed passive voice:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young woman were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood there for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor. The Great Gatsby by F. Scoot Fitzgerald
First of all, you should know I’m biased toward Fitzgerald’s writing style, but Gatsby is written in the first person from the perspective of Nick Carraway. He’s standing in the background describing what he’s seeing in this particular scene. The focus isn’t on him, and he describes the people in this paragraph in the same manner as he describes the objects because it’s all part of the same image. In the last sentence, Fitzgerald uses the active voice, which seems to indicate that the women are no longer just objects in the room but are becoming characters. Sure, that may be overanalyzing it, but the language itself is vibrant and has a heartbeat to it, and the command of metaphor is superb. All of that is what makes the style so good, active voice and passive.
Side note: For the sake of readers everywhere, please do not open your story in the passive voice. We want to see something in focus!
6) Use the right analogy.
“The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” - Aristotle
The purpose of an analogy is to create word picture that will illustrate to your readers exactly what you’re trying to say. This is an especially useful tool if you’re trying to say something that’s hard to describe or would otherwise be longwinded and convoluted.
So basically, the point of a metaphor or simile is to clarify and condense. You know you’re not using the right analogy when it fails to accomplish those things. When a metaphor goes really bad, it will have the opposite affect and cause your readers to stop thinking about your story altogether because their mind is now thinking about how bad your metaphor is and what on earth possessed you to use it in the first place.
As a rule of thumb, don’t use an analogy you’ve ever seen before, and definitely don’t use one that you think might be reaching too far. If it doesn’t aid in the reader’s understanding of your story, it’s subtracting from it, and you’re better off without any analogy at all.
Bad metaphor: Her blood turned to slush.
My mind couldn’t move on after reading this (I don’t remember the book, but I remember the terrible metaphor) because I was thinking, “The last time I checked, the human body pumps blood at 98.6 degrees, so she'd be dead if her blood actually turned to slush. This doesn’t make any sense. Dang, and I could really go for an Icee right now.”
See the problem? If I'm thinking about Icees, I'm not still thinking about the story, and that’s the opposite of what you want to happen. You want your metaphor to further pull your reader into your story, not push their mind away from it.
Good metaphor: He compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square.
When I read this the first time in The Great Gatsby, I distinctly remember thinking, “Yeah, I know exactly what that must feel like.” And then I eagerly kept reading. That’s the affect you want your analogy to have.
Side note: Also for the sake of readers everywhere, please do not open your story with a metaphor. I don’t care how great it is, we are not ready. We need to become invested first, so just hold off for most or all of the first chapter and worry about getting us to care about your story before you wow us with effects.
7) “Said” and “asked” are the only two dialogue tags you need.
“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ … he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
Dialogue tags should be used for clarity only. Ask yourself, “Can a reader tell who said that without a dialogue tag?” If the answer is yes, you don’t need to use one. Some people may disagree with this, but I will refer you back to points one and two.
Hold on, though. Let’s say, for example, you want to indicate that a character is saying something sarcastically. How do you indicate that without a dialogue tag? With action, of course. Here’s an example:
Don’t: “Oh sure, I love the way you ‘baked the cake!’” she yelled sarcastically.
Do: “Oh sure, I love the way you ‘baked the cake.’” She added air quotes for sarcastic emphasis.
Side note: Please don’t use exclamation points unless they are absolutely necessary to convey your meaning, which is almost never. Or maybe actually never. You get the point.
8) Don’t try too hard.
By that, I mean don’t come on that you’re trying at all. Good style is invisible, transparently providing the medium by which you are transferring your story into your readers’ minds. If they stop and think about it, you’re not successfully doing your job.
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” – Diane Setterfield
Nathaniel Hawthorne also said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” It certainly is, but you shouldn’t let on that it is. That doesn’t make for easy reading.
9) Write from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose.
“Before you begin to write a sentence, imagine the scene you want to paint with your words. Imagine that you are the character and feel what the character feels. Smell what the character smells, and hear with that character’s ears. For an instant, before you begin to write, see and feel what you want the reader to see and feel.” – Othello Bach
If you do this, I think you’ll find the words coming to you before you even start writing. It goes back to having something to say in the first place. If you’re having trouble with style, there may be a problem with the story itself. It’s hard to write interestingly about someone with nothing to lose or nothing at stake.
It may also be difficult if your character isn’t very interesting. Or maybe you just aren’t close enough to the character. Try writing in the first person. Maybe the first person isn’t right for your story, but do it anyway. Practice at it a while and see what happens. Sometimes switching to the first person is all it takes to liven up your style because it brings you closer to the mind of your character, and their attitude starts to come out in your writing style itself.
10) Go with your gut.
Naturally, the best way to enhance your gut instinct is to read a lot—good and bad.
“Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing.” – Joseph Epstein
Take the time to study what you love as much as what you hate so you’ll understand why. It’s important to know the reason behind what makes prose sing and what makes it screech. Once you do, when you notice that your own writing feels a bit off, it won’t be hard to figure out what’s going wrong and know how to fix it. Don’t worry; you will get there!
I also suggest keeping a notebook or digital file of writing you find especially captivating, whether it’s entire paragraphs from Gatsby, descriptions and metaphors you find particularly compelling, or just a list of words and names you like and want to use later. The more you collect, the bigger the arsenal you’ll have at your disposal. Always keep writing, putting that arsenal to use as often as possible.
“Eventually you won’t be thinking about style very much at all. Style will be a word that other people use to describe words that have come to you, and words you have spent time seeking to make your characters live their visible and invisible lives.” – John Casey