Improving writing style
March 20, 2009 9:06 AM   Subscribe

How do I improve my writing style?

I write. I've been working - like Brian from Family Guy - on the same novel for years. But I'm not bored of the story... I am bored, however, of the writing. I used to love crafting sentences, and it all used to flow quite well. I thought I had humour, rhythm and spark. Now I find myself growing bored with my style, which has become increasingly utilitarian and formal. It gets the information across, but is basically blah. This could be because my job requires me to do a lot of writing, which needs to be clear, informative, and fairly dull. I think my emails and other personal writing still have some degree of spark to them, but for some reason I can't seem to transfer that into my fiction-writing.

I already read a lot which is, I know, meant to be a good way of improving your own writing. I've read the other writer's block related questions on Ask Mefi and there are some good tips there that I intend to follow. But I've found nothing which focuses, specifically, on style and how you improve yours.

Thanks for your help Mefites
posted by Ziggy500 to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You might try taking a break from the novel and spending some time reading and practicing to write poetry. There are some good guides out there on poetic forms, meter, rhythm, etc. I found Alfred Corn's "The Poem's Heartbeat" well-organized and helpful. It may help your prose over the long run.
posted by zerzura at 9:16 AM on March 20, 2009

If you are more concerned about your style than the content, you're on the wrong track, IMHO -- no offense. I had a more ornate style when I was in my twenties, and that was fun, but it was needlessly ornate. So I pared it down, partly by writing an entire novel in a conversational tone. That worked pretty well... I can still ramp up the glitz when I need to, but in the main I avoid it.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:18 AM on March 20, 2009

Response by poster: No offence taken. I don't like needlessly ornate writing either... that's not my aim. Conversational would be fine, but my style is too formal. It sounds stiff, basically.
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:23 AM on March 20, 2009

Have you tried emphasizing the flaws? Or rather, what you see as flaws? It's a totally different approach.

I'm thinking of Kafka. His writing doesn't have a lot of punch on a sentence to sentence basis. He wrote like a law clerk because he was one. Of course, it was in stark contrast to his subject so it worked, but, nevertheless, not a lot of punch. He turned what one might see as a negative, emphasized it and made it work. Beckett is another example. He saw nobody could ever put more into a novel than Joyce did, so he emphasized this shortcoming and went the other way and stripped out everything he could to great success.

Take a deep long look at your writing and analyze the flaws. Stop trying to fix them and emphasize them as much as you can. You will turn the problem on its head and your conflict will change one way or another. Either you will like what you are writing and can run with it, or you will hate it and see how you can improve it.
posted by milarepa at 9:24 AM on March 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

A great exercise that a few great writers of the past have used is to find passages that you like by authors whose style you appreciate. Read it through once or twice and then, without looking at it, write what you can recall, trying to emulate that writer's style. Then you can either go back and look at it again to compare or, if you feel satisfied, go on to another writer or another passage.

Obviously you shouldn't focus on any one writer to the exclusion of all others, the goal is to develop your own style through practice and work, not to become a mimic.

Good luck (is it okay to say that to writers?)
posted by gwpcasey at 9:30 AM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is a tough one. Maybe the problem is not the style requirements of your day-to-day writing ("clear, informative, and fairly dull"), but that it's task oriented. You approach the copy with the intention of efficiently informing your audience. Which is fine. That's what the audience expects. But the audience for fiction does not expect to be informed (although that can happen). They expect to be entertained. The next time you sit down to write fiction, forget about figuring out how to inform your audience and think about how to beguile it.
posted by notyou at 10:03 AM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read a lot, especially foreign-language texts. Pay close attention to the framing of ideas and syntax.
posted by Electrius at 10:08 AM on March 20, 2009

A great exercise that a few great writers of the past have used is to find passages that you like by authors whose style you appreciate. Read it through once or twice and then, without looking at it, write what you can recall, trying to emulate that writer's style. Then you can either go back and look at it again to compare or, if you feel satisfied, go on to another writer or another passage.

Another technique along the same lines is a pastiche, read an author enough to get a feel for his or her style, and then do your best to copy that style in a new work. It doesn't even have to be an author that you particularly like or would like to emulate, just someone who writes in a very different style than your own.

The end result probably won't be very good, but in the process you'll be forced to put yourself in another writer's shoes and think about what constitutes their style. In the same way that a guitar player who has mastered many different genres has more experience to pull from when creating his own work, you'll be comfortable with a lot of techniques that you might not otherwise be familiar with in your own writing.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:11 AM on March 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Since you say you've been working on it a long time, maybe you just need a break from it? Maybe you've just been living so closely in its back pocket that you can only see its faults and you're just a little too close to it. Maybe putting it down and not thinking about it for a while -- maybe a couple weeks -- will help you take a break and come back to it with fresher eyes.

In terms of general advice, the only thing I could suggest would be doing some of those "write about X for only five minutes" exercises, because the idea there is a more free-form "brain-dump" kind of thing where, because it's timed, you just plain don't have time to worry about style any more. That may shake some of the stiltedness off that you see in yourself now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:23 AM on March 20, 2009

Best answer: Conversational would be fine, but my style is too formal. It sounds stiff, basically.

Do you read what you've written out loud? I do this with all my writing (even technical writing), pretending I'm explaining something to a friend, or telling a friend a story. There's a difference between writing and talking, but I think writing tends to suffer when it strays too far from natural human speech. I know I'm on the write track when I can speak my text out loud and it sounds natural. Note: it's important to actually speak the text out loud -- not just imagine doing so in your head. You want to hear and feel the words come out of your mouth.

Second, are you checking to see that your writing is sensual? My first drafts tend to be about getting across information. That's fine, but we read fiction (and some non-fiction) more for sensation than for info. I will never obtain this goal, of course, but on rewrites, I try to make every sentence appeal to at least one of the five senses. Special points for tickling senses besides sight and sound.

Finally, I recommend reading "Spunk and Bite." It's a fun book about breaking conventions in writing.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on March 20, 2009

Has anyone else taken a look at your novel? I know this might be hard, because it's your baby, but give even a chapter (or a few scenes if it's chapterless) of your novel to someone you trust, and tell them to pay attention to the style rather than the story. You don't want to tell them you think it's too formal, specifically, because it's better not to give them any preconceptions going in, but maybe you could say that you're considered your style is getting in the way of the narrative.

I'm not saying there isn't a problem with your style, because I haven't read your manuscript, but having been there myself, it's very possible that you've been working in a vacuum so long that you're exaggerating a very minor issue, or even creating one that's not there based on other frustrations (like creative fatigue, as others have suggested).

As a huge fan of Kafka and Beckett, I really like milarepa's suggestion. If nothing else, it would be a great exercise, and a way to help yourself see that formality isn't the end of the world.
posted by bettafish at 11:16 AM on March 20, 2009

Best answer: I'm not trying to be an ass -- really. I'm also not an expert. That being said, you might try making your sentences shorter. It's hard to do in a dry technical context. In your fiction, however, that's one way to liven things up. (It's also a challenge that might make things more interesting for you.)
posted by originalname37 at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2009

Response by poster: Fantastic answers here. Thanks for your help.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:50 PM on March 20, 2009

When I have had the same problem my solution has been to set myself some arbitrary strictures. Examples would be:

- Use periods and question marks as your only punctuation.
- Never describe a character's thoughts.
- Don't have sentences next to each other end in the same letter.

I'm not suggesting these per se but these are some examples. Lots and lots of great writers have worked that way, perhaps the most famous example is that Flaubert did not allow himself to use a word twice on one page.
posted by Kattullus at 8:23 AM on March 21, 2009

When I can't write smoothly I find that:

- I failed to strike while the iron is hot. The moment has passed & the touch of mystery that caused me to become interested in what I'm writing has gone.

- Getting away from the keyboard helps. I pace or go for a walk or a bike ride or take a shower. Bring along a tape recorder.

- Get someone to interview you about your story. You think differently when someone's talking to you.
posted by MesoFilter at 9:14 PM on March 21, 2009

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