Write Like You (The Best You Possible)

In the ChoiceScript forums, someone recently asked:

What makes a passage enjoyable? The style, the grammar, or something else? In other words, how can I improve my writing?

These are extraordinarily broad questions, and books have been written about them. Many books.

This will not be book-length. But it will be sincere.

Write in your own voice.

Many people want to have written novels and don’t. This is for many reasons, but primarily because sitting in front of the computer and putting words on the page for hours on end is hard.

Writing takes energy. Lots of energy.

Imitating someone else’s writing style is a great writing exercise, but it’s extremely difficult to sustain. Writing is hard in the first place, and it takes even more energy if you’re constantly second-guessing your instincts in an effort to sound like someone else.

It will be easier for you to write when you’re not trying to alter your own style.

What’s more, it will be a better experience for your reader, because everyone’s voice is incredibly different. A quick anecdote:

In 2008, I was doing quality assurance for a phone-based concierge company. (“For quality assurances, this call may be monitored or recorded” – and it totally was.) My job included checking emails for plagiarism, and all I had to do was grab interesting-looking sentences, put them in quotes, and put them in Google. If it was plagiarized, the source would pop back beautifully.

“It will be easier to write when you’re not trying to alter your own style.” That sentence isn’t exactly groundbreaking – but it doesn’t appear anywhere in Google. Neither does the second sentence in this paragraph. Or the third. (But the fourth and fifth ones do.)

If you give your reader your best imitation of NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, or JK Rowling, then you’re giving them an imitation of someone else’s style. A better version will always exist. But if you give your reader your voice, then it will be something unavailable anywhere else, and precious for that.

Edit your writing into a polished version of your voice.

Hooray, you wrote something! But putting words on the page doesn’t make those words perfect.

If you’re anything like me, you love your own voice (yay, I made words!) and this may be a rude awakening. You may even be convinced I am wrong (with regards to you), and you may even be right. But until you’ve confirmed the quality of your writing, it deserves an editing pass.

Here’s the test:

Challenge your writing. Look at every paragraph you wrote, every sentence in every paragraph, and every word in every sentence.

Now justify it.

You want your writing to be better, tighter, cleaner. You want it to say exactly what it should say, in the best way possible. And nothing more.

Every word needs a reason to be there. Every paragraph, sentence, word deserves to be challenged. Is it bland? Redundant? Confusing? Unnecessary? Is there any better way that you could say what you’re saying?

If so, do that instead.

I once attended a talk by Gail Carriger where she pointed out that you cannot perfectly transmit your intended experience into another person’s head, so if you get close enough, you’re good to go. Her example (which I am going to misquote, since I can’t find my notes) was something like: “The house huddled on the hill like a squirrel in the rain.”

How tall is the hill? What color is the house? Does it have multiple floors? What about a porch? None of that matters. What matters is that it’s an extremely evocative image, and thus you (as the reader) probably have an idea of this squirrel-like house. All the author needs is for your mental image to be close enough to her mental image to avoid contradiction later. The house in your head won’t be the house in her head, but what matters is story and immersion, not the exact appearance of the house.

Whatever doesn’t affect story and immersion can go.

Get your basics down.

Grammar. Spelling. You need these, and the reason why you need them is that accidental errors will damage your fiction.

If you’re creating an interactive fiction game (or any other kind of fiction, for that matter) the ideal is that your reader will miss the trees for the forest. You’re crafting an experience through the medium of words, and you want the player to have that experience rather than staring at the exact words you used.

If I’m staring at the wrong choice of “its/it’s”, or an incorrect “they’re/there/their”, then I’m (presumably) not having the experience you wanted me to have.

Breaking the rules is okay! But do it on purpose.

Are there there times when it’s appropriate to misuse grammar or spelling? Absolutely! I do it all the time. Evidence:

“But that’s Twitter!” you might protest. “You had to stuff it in 140 characters!”

This is true, and the limit does affect my writing style. (As opposed to this blog, where I’m luxuriously verbose.)

But what I wanted to do with that tweet was convey a specific emotional state. And the rules I chose to break – the misspelled “yay”, the missing period, the lack of capitalization – were all rules that helped get the message across.

Read to analyze style

Reading as a reader is great, but reading as a writer will help you learn style. Directly copying someone else’s voice is a bad idea, but trying to understand other voices will give you more insight into your own.

After you finish a particularly effective passage, go back and reread it with an eye to how the author wrote it. Look at sentence structure, paragraph divisions, word choice, assonance and consonance, simile and metaphor and analogy – the whole writerly toolbox. In addition to what they wrote, look at what they didn’t write, and find the places where they trusted your mind’s eye to fill in the details.

One of the most interesting opportunities to look at writing style is in modern epic fantasy, where Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time was finished by Brandon Sanderson. Jordan and Sanderson are working with the same characters in the same world, but Sanderson didn’t attempt to adopt Jordan’s style (a very good call!) so you can easily compare and contrast the difference.

You don’t have to read the entire Wheel of Time to do this. Pick up Knife of Dreams and Towers of Midnight and examine the writing from various pages on a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word level*. Which style is better is the subject of fierce debate – Sanderson’s fans consider Jordan’s prose wandering and repetitive, while Jordan’s fans find Sanderson’s prose emotionless and hurried. (I have no horse in this race.) But that just shows how tastes vary, and how any given author’s voice (like yours!) will appeal to some people more and some people less.

*The plot will be spectacularly confusing, but that’s not the point of this exercise.

Write to incorporate style

Literature analysis has value in and of itself, but the idea is to make your writing better. When you’re thinking about what makes someone’s writing effective, loop back to your own work and think about whether or not your writing is effective in the same way.

Can you set the scene like Joan Vinge? Establish character like Lois McMaster Bujold? Move the action along like Brandon Sanderson? Layer imagery like Max Gladstone? Show your work like Larry Niven?

If you figure out how the magicians work their tricks, then you’ll know how to work those tricks yourself. And over time, you’ll see opportunities to use those techniques – not while you’re imitating another author, but as yourself. And your voice will be all the stronger for it.

Helpful resources

Ken Rand’s “The 10% Solution” is a marvelous tool for the editing process. It’s a slim volume, but the essence is that most people have 10% cruft in their writing (or more), and it provides guidelines for weedwhacking the cruft so your story will bloom.

Stephen King’s On Writing is a marvelous resource. (I read, reread, and analyze King’s work on a routine basis – usually when I’m not working on horror games.)

Chuck Wendig is extraordinarily helpful (blog, books, the works) as long as you’re okay with him sounding like Chuck Wendig, which is to say, littered with extremely strong visuals and profanity. I have no problem with it, but your mileage may vary.

Ferrett Steinmetz introduced me to the 10% Solution. He writes about whatever interests him (beekeeping, polyamory, activism, kink, woodworking, Magic the Gathering, etc, etc), not just the writing process, so his blog should probably come with a warning label as well. But he routinely breaks down his WIPs and discusses his personal tactics and editing procedures and so forth, and he’s a Clarion graduate, so his insight is helpful.

What other books, bloggers, and resources are good style resources? Leave suggestions in the comments!

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  1. I can also recommend Stephen King’s older _Danse Macabre_ as an insight on writing. While the book might feel a tad dated, he does a great job of breaking apart horror plots and explaining why they work. He is also just entertaining to read.

    And of course, for nitty-gritty sentence mechanics, the one book that’s easiest to keep around is Strunk and White’s _The Elements of Style_.

    Another fun resource is “I Write Like”: Paste a sample of prose into the box and it will tell you what author it most resembles style-wise. https://iwl.me/

  2. Guess what…
    “It will be easier to write when you’re not trying to alter your own style.”
    …now pops up on a Google search. Guess the source.

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