Improving your style is one of the things you will keep doing until you write your final piece. You will always find something to improve, you will always have a better idea. Style, in general, is your writing voice, your pace, your plot structure, other creative choices. Basically, all your planning, writing and editing either shape or are shaped by your style.
There is a common understanding most writers take part in. At the beginning, putting the words out is what matters. Afterwards, you will have something to improve, model and polish. That is very true, but there is more to the art of writing than actually sitting and writing.
In the process of producing a quality book there are several important stages and multiple paramount aspects. There is plotting the novel and creating characters, there is actual writing, there is applying the themes which appear and adding the deep structure.
All of these in a great way contribute to your writing style. But, it is not a one way street. Style and all other aspects are intertwined and affect each other as well as they create each other. For that reason, we are about to discuss all the ways for developing and improving your style.
Improving Your Style
Here are the topics we will discuss today:
- Writing descriptively
- Never using ‘good’ and ‘bad’
- Be careful with adverbs
- Modeling your protagonist (from a classical hero to a modern antihero)
- Creating creative constraints
- Feeding on classical story (Aristotle’s Poetics, Shakespeare’s plots)
There is a great difference between telling your reader something and describing it. You might have a clear image of what something looks like and it is ideal, perfect, romantic, scary. So, you tell the reader that something is perfect or scary or romantic. And the reader now possesses a piece of information. What can they do with it? Nothing. They now know the thing is scary.
Now try describing it.
Pale moonlight shone on her saggy, dry skin as she stepped towards me. The coolness of the night’s air sent chills down my spine. Her long nails were cracked as if she dug her way out of a grave. The red lipstick slightly out of order seemed as if it was made of pure blood, with her lips soaked in it. The curly, white hair was sticking to her shrunken head without volume or movement, cemented. As she moved one shaky finger to her mouth a sound escaped from her lips. It was a silent ‘shhh’, meant to keep me calm. But calm was the last thing I could have been. It was the stench of rotting that cause the most unease.
Needs a bit more work but it still beats: The lady was scary.
The difference is that in telling the simple piece of information the reader only learns the information itself. By describing the image you trigger the reader’s senses. They now smell the stench of rotting and see the cracked nails. They hear the silencing sound and feel the uneasiness of our protagonist.
Tell your reader what the room smells like. Now, tell them how well lit it is. Tell them what small objects fill the shelves and what the howling of the dogs outside the house made your character feel.
The goal is to have your reader feel everything the character feels. And there is a scientific background to this. Only by hearing the words run or dance or jump part of your brain controlling the movements light up. You don’t feel that you are running but your brain goes for it.
Do your best in every description to engage as many senses as possible and keep your reader’s brain lighting up.
Be colorful, tell them the whole color scheme of the image you have in your mind. Saying something like The dress was as red as a rose. became a cliche and it tells readers nothing new. But if she wore a crimson flared dress against the Tuscan sun beach the reader now tries to imagine the exact shades of red and yellow. They are now curious about the flared dress and Tuscan sun yellow.
And don’t think for a second I know so many colors. Here is a brilliant little project perfect for authors that will always help you choose the right shade and name of the color you are looking for. Bookmark it. Now there is no excuse for saying red as a rose.
Expel Good and Bad
In a compelling and creative case against good and bad, a TedEd lecturer Marlee Neel argues that the words good and bad are liars designed for lazy people. They use these words in order to escape describing, illuminating and educating by using language.
Don’t take the easy route! Instead, use this little trick to improve your writing — let go of the words “good” and “bad,” and push yourself to illustrate, elucidate and illuminate your world with language.
Why would you say the weather was bad if you can tell your reader it was raining cats and dogs. Tell them about the sound the wind was making and use adjectives such as angry, raging, stormy, terrible, awful, cold… You get the point. It wasn’t good if it was divine, terrific, wonderful.
Language offers the power of adjectives and it should never be wasted by using two lazy, empty words like good and bad.
The case here is that good and bad describe and tell nothing. They are placeholders for true words. So, instead of simply telling your reader something was or felt good, tell them the whole story with many better adjectives and make your reader imagine.
Be Careful With Adverbs
I love them. I love them strongly, immensely and really, very much so. But I don’t need them. Here is the thing, you don’t need to stop using adverbs all together. However, there is a very simple rule for creatives on how to use them well.
If an adverb describes what was already said, cut it out. If an adverb tells opposite of what can be concluded, keep it in. They are only ever necessary if they shed light on the true meaning of words or contradict it in attempt to make the meaning.
Here is an example: Your money or your life, she said aggressively. You really don’t need the aggressively in there, it’s obvious.
But: Your money or your life, she said kindly. Huh? What drives the kindness? Where did that come from?
You would think it’s obvious but I’ve made the same mistake so many times, so I thought why not warn you about it. They sneak up, find their way into our crafts. Look out for them!
Modeling Your Protagonist
In Ancient times dangers surrounded people who gathered around fire and told stories long into the night. So, naturally, they told stories of heroes who challenged gods and monsters (thanks Lana). And the heroes prevailed. At times at great costs. But in the beginning, the hero was perfection. Think of Cupid and Psyche and their happy ending. Think of Odysseus and his struggles, but also his epilogue.
Introduce a Fault
Later a fresh and exciting genre appeared. Thanks to Aristotle, we have the structure and devices for creating such genre well, preserved in his Poetics, and I talk about tragedy.
A tragic hero is a person of a higher status and authority but with one great fault. They are balanced by their status and their fault and appeal to all audiences. Their virtues are stronger than their faults. However, the one they have always causes their downfall. It was Aristotle who concluded that the greater the height of the hero’s rise, the more painful the inevitable fall will be.
You see how we are progressing. Now we have a hero who has a fault. Macbeth was greedy and hungry for power, Antigone was proud but more importantly she was overly loyal to her views and beliefs (she was right, by the way).
At the end of the scale we have my beloved writer and utterly terrible man Louis Ferdinand Celine, and his The Journey at the End of the Night. We have an antihero. We realized our fears no longer inhabit the outside but are within.
Antihero is not your antagonist. They are still the protagonist of the story but they react to situations in a way that is not praised. No one bows their heads to the antihero and says You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. We have a grey scale of people who go from either simply acting unjustly or cowardly to the horrible ones, such as the protagonist of above novel.
Creating Creative Constraints
You get a clean slate, a blank board. Someone tells you there are no limitations, you can create the next big thing. Write a genre-bending, age-defining, rule-breaking and rule-making, bestselling novel and skyrocket to the hall of fame of history.
And you take out a piece of paper, put it in front of you, sharpen your pencil and, touch the paper once and a month later a dot is still staring at you. Don’t feel bad, that’s a normal reaction. Everything is possible is the quickest way to kill creativity.
Look at any aspect of human achievements – everything was creating from a need to overcome an obstacle. Landing a rover on Mars without contaminating the soil with oil and gasses produced a parachute and is about to produce a space crane.
A need to overcome a certain constraint is what drives creativity in the process. So, in spirit of improving your style, the next time you sit down to outline your novel, create an impossible situation. It might not end up in your plot but it will reveal aspects of your story and your characters you’ll find useful in other situations.
A good exercise is to limit yourself to randomly picking a word and starting a paragraph or a very short story with that word. It will limit you to a small number of possibilities. It will be your solemn duty to make the word and the consequent story interesting, relevant and immersive. But start with a random word.
Feeding on the Classics
Just as Disney executed the perfect heist of public domain works, adapting them for the contemporary society, so did the authors all over the world feed on the previous works. In improving your style it would greatly help to get as familiar as you can with other, early styles.
To see and understand the past of literature is to predict its future.
Homer, whether he ever existed or not, is attributed with two great pieces of art, Iliad and Odyssey. Both were preserved through oral tradition before finally being written down in many forms. On of the forms is what we read today. It prevailed not because of the lack of stories, but because of its power.
Virgil, whose great epic Aeneid follows Aeneas after the fall of Troy through his journey to Italy is an example of the powerful poetry from Ancient Rome. It exists today thanks to its political usefulness in the period of Virgil’s death, but is studies as one of the masterpieces.
Have you read Shakespeare? He deserves an articles for himself! His use of very specific words within the context is what propelled his plays to their current status. The Bard might have overused thous, arts and thees, yet the poetry and language, let alone the plots prove immortal.
Virginia Wolf, James Joyce, Braham Stoker, Marry Shelly, so many other authors whose names all deserve separate articles will be the first factor in improving your style.
Read the stories which enjoy the status you want for your stories. Learn from other authors in the only useful way – understanding their bodies of work in the context of their lives. Imagine what the authors intended for you to imagine and break loos of the prejudices about ancient poetry. Epic of Gilgamesh might be tiring but the vital elements, such as pacing, plot and character development, can be found in the latest bestsellers.
After all, you write one book and it fragments into millions because no book is the same for two readers. It is them who create your world over and over again. You simply write the text and it is up to them to make it come alive. Give them a little push, then.
Improving your style will never end. It is a process of learning and applying, making mistakes and trying again.
As always, keep writing!
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.