stepping into your own writing style

Lately, I’ve been into writing styles as I plow through my summer reading list. I read closely for the tone, word choice, grammar, and language, the author manipulates to tell a story.

I can’t help but to scrutinize what I read, from personal essays, and women’s fiction, to even nonfiction books about trees. My traveling eyes home in on a collection of words that separately may not have the bounce or resonation as they would when the author smartly places them together in a sentence. I catch the rhythm and flow to understand how, if anything, they make me feel, or see, or hear, or taste . . . something.

Yes, how I read a book has changed! Once reading without using my writer eye, now I don’t hesitate to stop mid-sentence and mentally change the diction, modify its structure, or after reading a paragraph, think a good use of metaphor to create animation from a flat scene.

What I’m really doing is rewriting the same thing, but in a style that is mine.

I realize that by doing this—considering word choice, sentence structure, grammar, tone, and use of creative devices such as symbolism or metaphor—I am identifying my own style.

Take these rich excerpts from my recent reads, noting their styles:

From Virginia Woolf’s, A Writer’s Diary, tone, word choice, sentence structure:

“The sun streams (no, never streams; floods and what wouldn’t I give to be coming through Firle woods, dirty and hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired and brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane and cool, and ripe for the morrow’s task.”

And from Brian Doyle’s Mink River, a distinctive and lyrical voice:

“At work in clay or wood or stone she stares, she breathes evenly, she is riveted, she is lost. No phone. Music gently. Bach when she is in stone, rock and roll in clay, jazz in wood.”

Or perhaps a daunting opening by Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things:

“Charles Bramwell Brockley was traveling alone and without a ticket on the 14:42 from London Bridge to Brighton. The Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin in which he was traveling teetered precariously on the edge of the seat as the train juddered to a halt at Haywards Heath. But just as it toppled forward toward the carriage floor, it was gathered up by a safe pair of hands.”

Oh, how I wish I could write just like that! But then again, not so fast.

No, I wouldn’t want to change a thing because style is what distinguishes one author from the next. If everyone used the same style, no piece of writing would stand out. Style is essential in fiction. And I can’t imagine what literature would be like without style. Think Hemingway, Kerouac, Didion.

It wasn’t until years later when I learned a lesson about writing style after one editor of my memoir chastised my writing. I tend to write prose with a good dose of rhythm and lyricism while establishing setting and place. I may follow it with two or three words. This is evident in my memoir and personal essays. This editor claimed my too-long sentences needed to be broken up, and some three-word ones needed more developing. I was conflicted. Do I follow the editor’s suggestion, reasoning it would make the writing better? I gave it a try. When I read the chapter aloud, the writing no longer sounded like me. The flow of the prose was choppy and interrupted. I couldn’t claim it my own style. This spoke to the very heart of what I had been trying to develop for my memoir: a style and voice that was mine, and no one else’s.

And now I can’t help but to read where the author’s voice speaks, and I follow. I will always read with a keen writer’s eye, but only to learn from it to enhance my own writing style.

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