Many different types of writing use simple words, short sentences, and direct language to engage readers. You can also improve your writing style by making deliberate decisions about structure and usage while preserving your authorial voice.
The writing style of a writer is the way that he or she conveys a story or an idea. A writer’s writing style depends on how they use words, how formal they are, how they construct their sentences, and how they approach the art of writing.
Good writers use different writing styles for different purposes. When you want to write better, you need to know how to be direct and clear, while also adding your own flair. Here are 10 tips that will help you improve your writing:
1. Think About Style
In any discussion of writing, the word style means the way in which an idea is expressed, not the idea itself. Style forms, not content. A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.
There is no subject that cannot be made fascinating by a well-informed and competent writer. And there is no subject that cannot be quickly turned into a literary sleeping pill by an incompetent writer.
You probably would not buy Ray Bradbury’s book Dandelion Wine if while browsing in the bookstore you turned to the version on the A.
Contrast it with the version on the B, Bradbury’s actual opening paragraph. You will see that while both paragraphs contain the same information, the version on the right has style, and that makes all the difference.
There wasn’t any noise at six a.m., and nobody was up yet. The wind was about the way you’d want it, and everything was pretty much okay. If you got up and took a look out the window, you could tell that summer was beginning.
It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real-time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
2. Listen to What You Write
Writing is not a visual art any more than composing music is a visual art. To write is to create music. The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.
So think of your writing as music. Your story might sound like the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, or it might sound like “Satisfaction.” You decide. But give it unity. It should not sound like a musical battle between the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and the Rolling Stones.
Read aloud what you write and listen to its music. Listen for dissonance. Listen for the beat. Listen for gaps where the music leaps from sound to sound instead of flowing as it should. Listen for sour notes. Is this word a little sharp, is that one a bit flat?
Listen for instruments that don’t blend well. Is there an electric guitar shrieking amid the whispers of flutes and violins? Imagine the sound of each word as an object falling onto the eardrum. Does it make a soft landing like the word ripple, or does it land hard and dig in like inexorable? Does it cut off all sound for an instant, like brutal, or does it massage the reader’s ear, like melodious?
There are no good sounds or bad sounds, just as there are no good notes or bad notes in music. It is the way in which you combine them that can make the writing succeed or fail. It’s the music that matters.
3. Mimic Spoken Language
Writing should be conversational. That does not mean that your writing should be an exact duplicate of speech; it should not. Your writing should convey to the reader a sense of conversation. It should furnish the immediacy and the warmth of a personal conversation.
Most real conversations, if committed to paper, would dull the senses. Conversations stumble; they stray; they repeat; they are bloated with, you know, like, meaningless words; and they are often cut short by intrusions.
But what they have going for them is human contact, the sound of a human voice.
And if you can put that quality into your writing, you will get the reader’s attention.
So mimic spoken language in the variety of its music, in the simplicity of its words, in the directness of its expression. But do not forfeit the enormous advantages of the written word. Writing provides time for contemplation. Use it well.
In conversation, the perfect word is not always there. In writing, we can try out fifteen different words before we are satisfied.
In conversation, we spread our thoughts thin. In writing, we can compress.
So strive to make your writing sound like a conversation, but don’t make it an ordinary conversation. Make it a good one.
4. Vary Sentence Length
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones.
It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences.
And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say, “Listen to this; it is important.”
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.
5. Vary Sentence Structure
Most sentences have a subject, a predicate, and an object, and early in life, we were taught to present them in that order. The dog ate the bone. Dick and Jane jumped into the river. A man walked down the street. Et cetera.
But identical sentence constructions bore readers. Certainly, you should strive for clarity and not arrange your sentences in a way that strangles their logic. But you should also keep the primary elements of the sentence dancing so that they will create their own music.
Below are two paragraphs in which all the sentences are constructed the same way. They all begin with the subject, move on to the predicate, and end with an object if there is one. What conclusion about the writer do you draw after reading them?
The Welcome Wagon Lady twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna. She was sixty if she was a day. She had ginger hair, red lips, and a sunshine-yellow dress. She said, “You’re really going to like it here!
It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!” Her brown leather shoulder bag was enormous. It was old and scuffed. She dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink from it. There was soup mix. There was a toy-size box of non-pollutant detergent. There was a booklet of discount slips that were good at twenty-two local shops. There were two cakes of soap. There was a folder of deodorant pads.
Joanna stood in the doorway. Both hands were full. She said, “Enough, enough. Hold. Halt. Thank you.” The sentences are all simple constructions—grade school concoctions.
One of the marks of an inexperienced writer is his or her inability to move beyond these basic sentence constructions. If Ira Levin’s best-selling novel had opened with those sentences, odds are good it would have been a worst-selling novel. But it didn’t. The actual opening of Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives follows. As you read it, take note of the variety of sentence constructions.
The Welcome Wagon Lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity (ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, “You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people!
You couldn’t have made a better choice!” Her brown leather shoulder bag was enormous, old and scuffed; from it she dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink and soup mix, a toy-size box of non-pollutant detergent, a booklet of discount slips well at twenty-two local shops, two cakes of soap, a folder of deodorant pads—“Enough, enough,” Joanna said, standing in the doorway with both hands full. “Hold. Halt. Thank you.”
6. Write Complete Sentences
Usually, only a complete sentence expresses a complete thought. A complete sentence has a subject and a predicate. “The cat jumped off the roof” is a complete sentence. “The cat jumped” is also a complete sentence. “The cat,” however, is not a complete sentence. You should try to write complete sentences.
However, if your high school English teachers told you that all incomplete sentences were unacceptable, they were wrong. Good writing often contains incomplete sentences. An incomplete sentence is a useful tool. Used wisely, it can invigorate the music of your words. Like a chime. Or the beat of a drum.
Here are two examples. The first is from my story “The Eight Thou.” The second is from Ping by Gail Levine-Freidus.
“Be damned if I know,” Charlie said. He got the cop laughing, then he patted him on the elbow and said, “Hey, look, you got a couple of cigarettes? I could be in this place for a long time. Years maybe.”
This is the way Charlie liked to work them. Shoot the breeze. Crack jokes. Butter them up. Be cute. Then hit them for what you really want. He had charmed his way down from Burlington, Vermont, this way, thumbing and lying like a carnival barker all the way into Boston. His real dream was the West Coast. California. But he’d figured a big city like Boston would be the place to stop first and somehow hustle up a couple of hundred bucks for the cross-country trip.
Unfortunately, the Boston P.D. hadn’t been quite as enchanted by his spiel as some of the people who had given him rides. He hadn’t been in town long. Ten days. And this was his third arrest. When I first arrived, I saw nothing. In time I discovered light. White light. And weightlessness. Then there was motion. For a while I felt as though I were flying. Soaring. Later, I sensed a stillness which held me nearly breathless. Yet, I was unafraid.
Note that the partial sentences are used sparingly. Incomplete sentences do not fare well in large numbers or in groups. They draw their musical strength and often their meaning from the complete sentences that surround them.
So write complete sentences ninety-nine percent of the time. But now and then, if a partial sentence sounds right to you, that’s what you should write. Period.
7. Show, Don’t Tell
Let me remind you that shorter is almost always better. This is an exception. It usually takes more words to show than to tell, but you can afford a few extra words for a tool this valuable.
When you show people something, you are trusting them to make up their minds for themselves. Readers like to be trusted. Don’t dictate to them what they are supposed to see, think, or feel. Let them see the person, situation, or thing you are describing, and they will not only like what you have written, they will like you for trusting them.
Look at the following letters from camp. Letter A tells; letter B shows. Which letter do you find more revealing: Which letter writer would you rather know—Irma or Donna?
My new boyfriend, Arnold, is a terrific athlete. He is also incredibly smart, very sentimental, and sort of strange.
Yours truly, Irma
My new boyfriend, Arnold, ran five miles to my cabin in the middle of that lightning storm last week. When he got here, he stood out in the rain and started shouting how he loves me in five different languages.
Yours truly, Donna
Show, don’t tell. Even in business letters and memos. You want Barbara Resnikoff to get a promotion, but you need the board’s approval. Which memo would Barbara Resnikoff prefer to have you send?
Ms Resnikof has been loyal, hardworking, and helpful to the company. I think she deserves a promotion.
Ms Resnikof turned down two of ers from Westinghouse last year. She worked fourteen-hour weekends, and she saved the Renaldo account even after it was discovered that the rabbit warehouse was empty. She deserves a promotion.
8. Keep Related Words Together
Words that are part of the same information package are related, and they should be clustered together to avoid confusion. Adjectives should be placed near the nouns they describe so they don’t appear to be describing some other noun.
Likewise, adverbs should be close to the verbs they modify, and dependent clauses should be near the words on which they depend for meaning.
The boy rode his horse through the winter woods, strong and proud as could be. Garonovitch saw a small cut on the dog that was on his left front paw. Nushka’s Roumanian pistol misfired when she tried to catch the Chinese bandits, which doesn’t happen often.
The strong, proud boy rode his horse through the winter woods. Garonovitch saw a small cut on the left front paw of the dog. When Nushka tried to catch the Chinese bandits, her Roumanian pistol misfired, which doesn’t happen often.
9. Use Parallel Construction
Though several consecutive sentences constructed the same way can bore the reader, there are times when you should deliberately arrange words and sounds in a similar fashion in order to show the reader the similarity of information contained in the sentences.
Just as the steady beat of a drum can often enrich a melody, the repetition of a sound can often improve the music of your writing. This is called parallel construction.
Listen to the difference parallel construction makes in the following examples.
I drove to the construction site to see what I could find out from the workers. I talked to the foreman. The electricians and I had a discussion.
This was followed by a talk with the carpenters. Also, the plumbers told me what they thought. The same view was held by everybody. The project would have to be started over.
Fish gotta swim and flying is something that birds must do.
First I came. Then I saw. Conquering came next. When one has been seen by you, you’ve seen them all.
I drove to the construction site to see what I could find out from the workers.
I talked to the foreman and electricians. I talked to the carpenters and plumbers. They all said the same thing. The project would have to be started over.
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.
I came. I saw. I conquered. When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
10. Don’t Force a Personal Style
Style is not something you can put onto your writing like a new set of clothes. Style is your writing. It is inexorably knotted to the content of your words and the nature of you. So do not pour the clay of your thoughts into the hard mould of some personal writing style that you are determined to have.
Do not create in your head some witty, erudite, unmistakably exciting persona and try to capture him or her on paper.
Also, do not try to write like Elizabeth Gilbert, Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Carver, or anybody else. If you fail you will look foolish, and if you succeed you will succeed only in announcing to the world that you are not very creative. Strive instead to write well and without self-consciousness.
Then your style will emerge. It might be as specifically yours as your thumbprint, or it might be as common as sunshine. But at least it will be you.