What makes for effective writing style? There may be a number of objective criteria for what satisfies the characteristic ‘effective’, but the answer must also be subjective. What pleases one person, irritates another. What meets the academic standard, may be barely readable.
The first rule to an effective style, in my mind: do you like your own writing? Are you yourself happy with the piece you have written? Is it your ‘authentic’ voice, or some artificial contrived voice? Within bounds of basic structure and coherence (maybe not even that) what you like about your writing is what counts. Maybe one or two readers will like your writing too.
Writing style is constantly evolving, even amongst the best writers. I’m sure you have your favourite writers and some of his/her books are not as pleasing as earlier, or perhaps later, works. A consistent style over many books may be the hallmark of a ‘Good Writer’.
My own style has emerged over the last ten years or so. More likely it’s taken the last fifty years to get here but my current narrative style has evolved to its present form in the last decade. And like climate change, continues to change, ever so imperceptibly.
You’ve already picked up a few of my writing characteristics: that I am mostly conventional as to structure, I like good vocabulary, I use conjunctions and punctuations somewhat idiosyncratically. But there is more to style than quirky use of colons. What makes my ‘style’ mine?
How do I know I even have a ‘style’?
Feedback. Many readers have commented on my writing, not all of it flattering. But for the most part they are complimentary and what they have to say is exactly what I was trying to achieve: A natural fluid style. My writing voice is very similar to my speaking voice and so is familiar to those who know me; this voice should also begin to feel human and immediate to my new readers. My writing should flow and read easily.
It’s said reading a passage or book aloud will make proof of this desire for fluidity. And don’t cheat in this – don’t read ‘aloud’ in your head. If you stumble and shudder over a passage it isn’t fluid. It needs cutting, revising, new vocabulary or phrasing. Or scrapping. Ironic that such a goal (a natural voice) is an infrequent result in the first draft. It takes many revisions to achieve your ‘natural’ writing style. And if, after many revisions, you know you haven’t met your goal, the piece should be abandoned.
I try to bring accessible information to the thread. And humour. I use irony and surprise often. My motto in my professional capacity is, ‘to educate, and to entertain’. That seems to me a suitable motto for my personal writing too, maybe in reverse: ‘To entertain, and to educate’. Only you the reader can discern whether I have been successful in that.
My narrative style emerged as an intrinsic part of my journey to become a writer. You don’t just sit down and your writing style is fully formed. (Well maybe it is but is it readable?!) First you start to write with some object in mind, and then you edit and revise and whatever is left is your ‘style’. And then have the temerity to send it out. Then you write more articles, and your style begins to take shape. My style evolved from writing as a human resources executive and then as career development coach (my professional persona) to writing my personal memoirs (books about the family dogs). Or more accurately the writing style emerged from parallel paths: I wrote for my professional audience (my clients and other interested parties) as education and I wrote for myself (and other interested parties) as entertainment.
I think I still have two writing styles, similar voice, but different tone. My professional writing may be less pedantic than previously but is still rather earnest, sometimes bordering on the hectoring, I fear. I’m not just conveying information, I’m teaching; preaching even. I try to be aware of this and lighten up a bit. (I recall using Dragon, a dictation software, to produce first drafts of a chapter or passage in my management effectiveness book. In playing the recording back I heard a tone of self-important absolutism, and I cringed.) So I try to drop in an ironic or contradictory statement to surprise the reader; sometimes I surprise myself. I claim that having a sense of humour is a management/leadership attribute, so I need to take off my robes and demonstrate it from time to time. Not sure I’m always successful. I’m sure many readers aren’t sure either: they may miss the esoteric reference; but at least It’s entertaining for me.
My personal writing (yet still professional) is more lighthearted or whimsical. Not all the time mind you, I’m not just writing for humour’s sake. Some of my recent efforts are serious – subjects touching on loss, and pain and anger and helplessness. These stories include the full range of emotion and my writing has to bring that emotion out, naturally. Nothing funny about it.
Now that I think on it, maybe I’m attempting to be a later-day Stephen Leacock – academic by day, humourist by night, perhaps failing at both.
At any rate, my writing style is considerably more mature than 50 years ago, or even ten. But it is still evolving. You may even notice it evolve as you read these blogs over the weeks and perhaps years ahead.