In my time here at AC, I’ve been amazed by the number of good writers who publish on this site. And yet, as good as most of these articles are, excellent writing demands more. It demands a distinctive voice – one that’s entirely you. This voice is your style, and it should reflect both you and your audience. Your style, more than any other factor, connects you to your readers in a way that will keep them coming back for more. They may disagree with you. Your topic may not appeal to them. But they will respect you as a writer, and trust you to deliver. Developing your style takes practice. It takes self-reflection and self-awareness. But most of all it takes a command of craft.
What is Craft?
Many writers just write by the seat of their pants, letting instinct be their guide. But instinct is not craft. Instinct is pulling your hand off stove burner when it’s hot. Craft is avoiding the burner in the first place.
Craft is the nuts and bolts of writing. It is not talent. It can be learned. Craft is simply a command of your writing. It is getting your words to do what you want. The tools and techniques that comprise craft tend to be pedantic and universal; however, what makes them unique is how you use them. This is style, and it comes through when you develop your writer’s voice. I firmly believe it is called a writer’s voice because when you find it, your readers will hear you speaking to them as they read your work.
Saying it With Style
Style seems simple enough. It’s the way you approach your material. No two writers with command of craft tackle a topic the same way. Your style should be your fingerprint, identifying you as the author. That is one goal of style. The other is to provide your readers with predictability. Readers come to you as an author with a set of expectations based on your style. Whether you are witty or verbose, simple or complex, readers want a consistent reaction. This establishes a relationship between author and reader in a way that will keep readers coming back for more. While you may write on a variety of subjects, if you approach each with the consistent, familiar style that your readers have come to know and appreciate, you can achieve a solid readership, increasing your page views and reputation as a vibrant author.
Let’s break style down into its components to get a better handle on it.
The words you choose speak volumes about you as an author. While an immense vocabulary is an asset for any writer, there are times when writers go too far to show just how large their vocabularies are. No one likes to read an article that requires them to keep thumbing through a dictionary just to understand your magnificent command of the English language. Despite this, take a look at your word choice when developing your style. Do you use simple, straight-forward language? Or do you prefer the loftier linguistic legerdemain that made your English teachers marvel at your prosaic prowess? Be conscious of your word choice when thinking about your writing style. The thesaurus is a great tool but one often overused. Style is not about choosing the most impressive words you can look up, but rather, it’s about choosing the right words for you. Once you’ve found those words, make a conscious decision to stick to your style. Of course you can deviate a bit. But remember that the goal of writing is communication, and the goal of style is creating a unique manner of communication.
Approach to Material
Take a conscious look at how you reveal information. Is your style sarcastic, witty, straightforward, or complex? Do you favor broad overviews or in-depth examinations of a single point? Either way, your approach to your material is a function of your writing style. Think back to your old textbooks. They were chock full of great information, but the writing style of most is so dry and dull — it’s hard to remember anything from them. While this is a generalization, it is but one of many examples in which a lack of personal style holds back an otherwise informative text.
Occasionally, the material dictates your style. You may have developed a witty, sardonic style that’s perfect for your article on organic gardening for apartment dwellers, but this same style would be entirely inappropriate for writing about the aftermath of 911. As a rule of thumb, the demands of the material override personal style. This does not mean that your style is a slave to the material, but rather, it may override your style and cause you to tone it back or ramp it up if necessary.
Respect Your Audience
While this is anathema to some writers, knowing and respecting your audience will help you develop a writing style that is right for you and right for your readers. Some writers believe style comes from the inside – and they are correct; however, we aren’t discussing writing novels or poetry. Writing articles for AC demands respect for the reader. If you are writing an article on Halloween crafts your style should reflect this. If your article is on the efficacy of 20th century astrophysicists, your style will obviously differ. The bottom line in developing your style for an audience is to examine the effectiveness of your communication techniques. Industry jargon is great for advanced articles, but for basic how-to’s intended for a general audience, these terms may stop a reader cold. Keep this in mind as you develop your stylistic approach to your material, and your audience will connect with your writing. Once they make this connection, you have succeeded as a writer.
Tips to Better Style
Try to limit constructions that weaken your writing. Instead of writing: we are walking – write: we walk. Passive writing weakens your writing style.
Many writers overuse adverbs. Adverbs weaken your writing and impede developing a personal writing style. Adverbs are easy, and that’s the problem with them. Power in writing comes from verbs. Adverbs dilute this power. Look at your writing. If it is laced with adverbs, look to your verbs and see if you can chose stronger, more precise verbs that communicate the same idea in a more compact manner. Can you say someone runs instead of someone walks quickly?
If you are funny, use that. Remember, your reader is not required to read your article. You must entertain as you inform. A great way to do this is through humor.
Keep it Simple.
While this doesn’t apply to every article, as a general rule, try not to make your writing difficult to access. Simple does not imply simplistic. It does imply writing clearly and concisely with language that is comfortable for an average reader. Long, convoluted sentences tend to lose many readers and are difficult to punctuate correctly. Why make it harder on yourself and your readers?
Vary your Sentences
Examine sentence length and how you begin your sentences. Mix things up. A short punchy sentence amidst a group of long sentences will stand out. Use that to your advantage.
Break up Long Passages
Nothing looks more intimidating to a reader than a long unbroken passage of text. Break it up into short, manageable sections to increase the amount of white space on the page and invite the reader into you article, rather than intimidate them with the density of your knowledge.
These are but a few tips to developing craft, which will ultimately lead to developing your own distinct style. Every writer has his or her own bag of tricks. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t borrow a few tools and make them your own. The key to style is not the number of tools you have — it’s how you use them.