How to Understand Your Writing Style
“When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.” Blaise Pascal
Whenever I finish a really good novel, I immediately begin to think about it.
If it was very good, I hope its feeling won’t get lost in the dross of daily thoughts. I want to keep it, and savior the taste of the story, think more about the characters, the feelings and nuances created by the beautiful story.
There was something about the style that caught me and made me read on.
We write, firstly, to communicate an idea. That idea can be a story, long or short, or an article that contains information that is well presented and understandable to the reader. If the reader likes what we have written, it is often because they have learned something, or enjoyed something about the way we told our story.
I like to think that stories have magic in them, or something that is very close to magic; we affect a person’s feelings, their thoughts, and maybe, we have an effect on their beliefs. That’s magic, some of the best authors in the World have achieved just that, changed minds, made people fall in love, caused revolutions and even caused people to stop fighting. That’s magic.
How do they do it?
Is it Style?
Style is an elusive thing. And I suspect that the more we attempt to nail it down, the quicker it moves, and wriggles away under a pile of writing.
It is hard to define what style is in any art. Painters know about style, it can be very obvious in their work. Onlookers who view a painting can say a few words about a painters style, but the deeper they go, the more of an argument they incite with their neighbor.
If you know a little about painting, you would probably agree that it’s a jarring experience to look at a Francis Bacon painting, and then immediately try and enjoy a John Singer Sargent portrait — Bacon painted a few portraits, they are spot on when you compare the image with the real person. But they are also a bit off, there is a lot of artistic licence involved in Bacon’s work. But as viewers, we instinctively know to avoid the bits that are “wrong” and look at the bits that work well.
John Singer Sargent is all about getting it right, then adding his style. His style is also very inline with his time, the late 1800s-1925. He was a Victorian artist who wanted to break out and paint something wild, but society wouldn’t allow it.
He was a very sober man, who had only one hobby after painting, playing the piano. His subtle style is unique among all the painters of his time.
Reading is similar, we read a particular author and when we enjoy the work, we read another book by the same author. Often, we don’t have to talk about the style of a book, it’s more common to talk about the plot, and if you like the sound of it, give it a go.
We like what the author has seen, and how she tells a story, we blot out the bits that aren’t so good — not every good book is perfect.
Eliciting Style from other Writers
Trying to elicit style from another author who we admire, is easier to do than to consciously develop our own style.
Trying to develop a style yourself can be like chasing your own tail.
I once spent a couple of years trying to paint like Francis Bacon, each time I finished a painting it looked more like Lucian Freud’s work than Bacon’s. The more I read about Bacon and his habits, the more I disliked him.
So, I began reading about Lucian Freud, then discovered that he was a painter friend of Bacon’s, and after cross referencing their social life, I came to the conclusion that Lucian Freud’s style had rubbed off onto Bacon, but in a unintentional way, maybe Frances Bacon was battling with himself, trying to find his own style but kept turning out brush strokes that he’d elicited from Lucian Freud.
We can recognize style in writing, especially in novels, but when it comes to writing an article it can be difficult to define the style beyond formal, relaxed, or chatty writing. Each article writer has their own style. Even when they are learning by reading great article writing, and attempting to put a bit of the magic from the author into their own writing, their own style will come through. It’ll be a mix-up of both.
When we attempt to elicit style, and see that the end result is nothing like the style we wanted, we might think we’ve failed to grasp the principles of good writing.
We should pay attention to the fact that our own style was forcing itself through when we attempted to copy someone else’s style.
We can never not be ourselves.
The piece that we used to learn from was probably our idea of great writing. But it might not be that for another reader. Style is individual to each writer, and only similar in that each person has similar lifestyles, characteristics, and beliefs.
It’s the old story of trying on the queen’s clothes, and discovering that they don’t fit.
Readers look for writers who have a similarity to their own style, and have expressed it in an article or novel.
We can learn about writing in general by sopping up books and articles written by the Big-Pens, but we can never put their mantle on our shoulders and claim that we are original in our way of writing and viewing life.
We can’t pretend to be the Queen, just because we stole her clothes. We must fight for our own kingdom.
I have read novels by Kate Atkinson, she loves to meander her way through a garden, or a house. She builds tapestries of words that reflect rich landscapes.
I also love to read novels by Colum McCann, he writes about ordinary people and their lives, the hardships and the struggles of love and survival. He loves to meander along a New York street, describing vivid details of the sidewalk, the walls, the passing people, and I love every minute of this reading. It reflects my own thoughts about the potential that cities have in them, what makes the, special, magical, and that it’s the people that makes a city come alive.
I feel the style, I don’t get why Kate Atkinson needs to go so deep into a garden or a staircase in a old house. I do understand why Colum McCann needs to describe the streets of New York with long and winding paths of words. They conjure up images and feelings for me, they reflect my own experience of life.
I get it with cities, I don’t dig gardens.
John Singer Sargent was basically brought up as a Victorian, influenced by American, Bostonian culture of that time, he lived a staid, and as some say, boring life, except for when he was at his easel.
Francis Bacon lived in London, experienced rejection from the art establishment for years, was even turned away at his first big exhibition by a doorman who thought he was a bum from off the street. He drank heavily and sought out the seediest places to have fun in life.
There is no way that these two artist could find a meeting point in life that would give them the same style. John Singer Sargent and Francis Bacon could have talked about their art to each, their view of the World, but teach each other little about forming a style. They had nothing in common.
Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud met, drank together in the same club in Dean Street, Soho, London, The Colony Room Club, known for it’s clientele of artist, gangsters, and celebrities looking for a late night drink and more.
They both had something in common, they lived in the same time and place.
Many authors talk about how we use our ears to define how we write.
How the word sounds is more important than the literal meaning of the words. The subtext will find its way into our work, unconscious author activity will create a subtle mood, a coloring in the words will appear for a reader, that the author couldn’t have seen at the time of writing.
It is hard to judge our own writing, even when we practice balanced criticism we will use our own bias and hopes to see what we hope for as we write.
If we write an article and just want to present information, then we are going for a style well known — journalistic style. With this style, we follow rules and present facts without a personal input. The end piece should appear unbiased and often, dry but informative. It isn’t the task of a journalist to tell us what they think, they must tell us what happened and why.
We don’t need style from a journalist, but times have changed.
Today, a lot of journalists have adopted a form of Gonzo Journalism which was first presented by Hunter S. Thompson, author of, “Hells Angels” , and Tom Wolfe, the author of “Bonfire of the Vanities”.
The claim is that there is no objectivity in the work — hence, the introduction of storytelling in journalism. They put themselves into the picture and reported on what they felt and saw.
You can read the news today, and if you are astute at picking out opinions from facts, you’ll come across a lot of journalistic opinion in the daily news from the Media. Journalistic training coupled with storytelling is a recipe for a wild-assed ride through the news.
We write and hope that our style has an impact. We read and love somebody else’s style, and we attempt to elicit that style. I think that style is a maze of ideas, of facts and characteristics that present us as individuals.
We have things in common with some of the authors we read, we like how they think because we identify with their words, and they make it easy for us to roll through the words with them, we’d love to have a little of what they’ve got — how they write.
We can look in the mirror and see our image, but not ourselves. When we read a great author and see a bit of ourselves in the work, it’s because we are reading the action of words, the author heard something and passed it on in their own way, according to their way of looking at the World.
Style is the way we are, and can’t be seen or heard fully by ourselves. We get glimpses of it to help us along in our writing. But to turn away from the page and attempt to focus on building a style is like trying look at the back of your head in the mirror.