By Glen C. Strathy
Learning how to improve your writing style can be one of the biggest challenges for aspiring writers -- whether you want to write fiction or nonfiction. In fact, some creative writing teachers feel it's nearly impossible to teach people how to write with style.
One school of thought says that all you can do is give people opportunities to write. Some will develop a good style instinctively and some won't. It's a bit like throwing someone into the deep end of a swimming pool and letting them figure out for themselves how to swim.
Another school of thought tries to define certain rules or guidelines of what constitutes a good style and teaches people to apply them. This is more helpful for those who are struggling. But it tends to encourage everyone to write with a similar style. This can be a problem in fiction where a writer or character's unique style is often what makes a book interesting.
Below are two of the bests way I know to improve your writing style and help you develop a better sense of style. They are holistic approaches, in that they don't require you to memorize any rules, but they are very effective. Both of them take some time, but the results are better in the long run.
There's also a faster but less effective approach, which I'll mention at the end.
As I noted elsewhere, most good writers are avid readers. If you are an aspiring writer, chances are you are also a great reader. If you aren't, you need to become one.
Constantly consuming good examples of writing helps give you both a conscious and subconscious understanding of what good writing should sound like, an understanding that will come through in your own work.
Here are some tips to get the most out of your reading...
Read as many books as you can, so long as you enjoy the time spent reading. Read books that are currently popular. Read books that have won awards or that have inspired imitators. Read classic books that have stood the test of time. Every great book can teach you something about style.
Don't limit yourself to one genre. Every genre has certain stylistic traits and can teach you something about the art of storytelling. Of course, you will have your favourite genres, but try to read a few books in every genre.
If you have ever needed to read a lot of books or articles for school or work -- or if you spend a lot of time surfing the web -- you may have learned to save time by skimming -- or, even worse, speedreading.
Stop doing that!
You will pick up a much greater sense of style if you slow down and make yourself read every word in order. Pay attention to how every sentence is constructed. Give the language a chance to make an impact on you. This will train your brain to think in great sentences, which is a habit you need to be a great writer.
If you have trouble doing this, try reading aloud (perhaps in a faint whisper). Pretend you are reading the book to someone else. This will force you to pay more attention to the language.
When you're reading for school or work, you often don't have time to go back and re-read books that struck you as particularly moving. But as an aspiring writer, it's a good idea to re-read your favourite books so the language becomes more anchored in your consciousness
One of the best ways to learn to write good dialogue is to act in community theatre productions of great plays. Memorizing your lines and hearing great scenes over and over in rehearsals and performances develops your sense of style perhaps even more than reading. Similarly, you can memorize great poems or passages from your favourite books. (I can still recite poems from The Lord of the Rings I read as a pre-teen.) It's a great mental exercise and a great way to improve your writing.
Let's assume you have your reading habit well established. That will lead to great long-term results.
However, my guess is you want to know how to improve your writing at a much faster rate. Here's a powerful exercise that can help you...
Choose some of the best books you have read. You don't need a lot of them for this exercise. Anywhere from 6-10 will do.
If you are interested in writing nonfiction, choose books that really brought
the subject matter to life for you. Choose books that make difficult concepts interesting and easy to understand.
If you are interested in writing fiction, choose books that you fell in love with and enjoy re-reading. Choose books in which you find the prose style beautiful, engaging, or impactful.
That's right. Copy a chapter word for word from one of your chosen books.
You can copy out a chapter longhand with a pen and paper, or type it into a word processor document (but a pen might be better).
If you thought reading slowly was a way to force yourself to pay attention to the language of a book and help it to sink in, copying it out by hand is even better.
You may find this exercise a little tedious. But there's no better way to develop your sense of style.
The best results from this exercise come from repeating it often. You may not always have the time, but if you can copy out one chapter each week for a year, using a different book each time, you will improve your writing skills immensely. You will gain an instinctive understanding of what makes great prose.
Okay, both of the above methods of improving your writing style will take an investment of time, ideally a year or more. That investment will pay off better than any shortcut you could come up with. Both these methods will train your brain in the art of building effective sentences and stories. They will give you solid understanding of what makes great style. And they will give you hours of enjoyment (after all, you are a book lover, right?).
If you don't have the time to make a long-term investment in your writing talent -- perhaps because you have a deadline or some other urgent need to churn out publishable prose right now -- you can take some shortcuts. You can learn and apply some of the guidelines I've outlined in articles on line editing and reducing wordiness and apply them in revising your writing.
You might also check out some of the other articles about style on this site.
Or you can turn to an online tool such as Hemingway, which can make suggestions for improving your prose.
Working with these guidelines and tools can help you improve your style because they focus your attention on making better sentences. Eventually, you will find yourself applying the guidelines while writing your first drafts.
But these quick-and-easy approaches will not be as good in the long run as the first two methods I mentioned.