I can tell you from 13 years teaching of high school English, style is hard to teach. There are some people who just have that ‘it factor’ in their writing….the same way some people have that ‘it factor’ in their fashion style, their personality, their charisma. They just got it.
In writing, grammar is one thing (and a very important one), but style is another beast altogether.
All hope is not lost, though. There are really are some techniques you can incorporate to better your writing style. You’ve seen What Not to Wear? Same idea – just applied to writing. Sure, it’s great when it’s natural, but style can be learned.
Some years ago I went to conference by Mary Ellen Ledbetter. She was a teacher as well and had the same issues with her students and writing. She decided to do her own research and study the classics – the books we love and revere and are drawn to…those magnetic authors that just draw us in. Were there any common denominators? Any techniques that these writing icons used?
Well, actually, yes, there were. She introduced them to her students as ‘Smiley-Face Tricks’ because she would put a smiley on their papers when they used one of those techniques.
I introduced them to my students some years ago. At first, of course, the protests, the eye-rolls, the sighs. They complained that it felt forced, unnatural. My counter-argument was that nothing really feels natural when you first start. Think about playing an instrument or practicing lay-ups or learning how to dance. At first, it’s all awkward. But after enough practice, it begins to look and feel natural.
Now, I can tell instantly when my students are using them. It’s like watching wilty impatiens suck in water after being neglected in the sun too long (don’t ask me how I know this); their writing perks right up.
There are 8 ‘tricks,’ and in my best-teacher-voice, I tell you, give them a try if you want to perk up your writing. I’ll cover 4 in this post and the next 4 in another.
1. Magic 3 – This is 3 groups of words with parallel phrasing, adding a lyrical element to your writing as well expanding what the reader envisions.
Example: The sneaky child is always fabricating elaborate stories, embellishing the facts, and cleverly lying her way out of trouble.
Here, you can see the groups of words, and you can see the verb phrasing. Instead of just saying that ‘The child is dishonest,’ now you have really elaborated in a lyrical, balanced way.
Why this works: Sometimes, this forces me to expand details. Sometimes, when my draft only has 2 groups or my descriptions are a little….um…non-descript, I’ll see if there is more information I can elaborate on. Also, if I have adjectives (or some other part of speech) in one group and not another, Magic 3 forces me to balance out the phrasing to have a more lyrical flow of ideas.
Warning: A Magic 3 is not just a list of 3 items (‘She ate ice cream, pizza, and chips.’) It’s 3 groups of words, with parallel phrasing.
2. Figurative Language: Ok, think back to high school English…similes, metaphors, personification, hyperboles – all of them. Figurative language is a fast way to add some color to otherwise flat and stale writing.
Example: Instead of ‘My fear of dying pops up at all kinds of unexpected times,’ try ‘My fear of dying is a terrorist that takes me by surprise and hijacks my peace and sanity, holding them hostage.‘
Why this works: Figurative language gives the reader something they can compare. It takes an abstract concept and gives it some concreteness, something the reader can identify with and imagine.
Warning: Figurative language only works if you stay away from cliches. Cliches come pretty naturally to us, so beware. On the other hand, be careful not to ‘overreach,’ making bizarre comparisons. The goal is originality, not weird.
3. Specific Details for Effect: This is good, old-fashioned imagery. The five senses. Create a word-picture for your reader. What does the scene look like? Smell like? Sound like? Feel like? Taste like? The more you can recreate the scene through words for your reader, the more you will draw them in.
Example: Instead of ‘I was so happy to see him!‘, try ‘As he rounded the corner and came into my view, I let out a high-pitched squeal and sprinted to him, throwing myself into his arms.’
Why this works: We have a little phrase we use -‘Show vs. Tell.’ Don’t tell me how happy you were; show me. What would I see? How would I know? What would I hear? You get the idea. Using imagery, you are giving the reader something he can actually imagine seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling.
Warning: It’s hard to go wrong with this one. My one warning would be don’t overdo it. Readers sometimes get lost in long paragraphs of descriptions. Shorter paragraphs or breaking it up with dialogue goes a long way!
4. Expanded Detail: Certain parts of our narratives contain those dramatic, climactic moments – the parts that, if it were a movie, the background music would build and the scene would go into slow motion. When we are writing, we have to create this effect with our words. Sometimes, we rush past a moment when, really, we should be slowing down and expanding the scene to let the readers experience it.
Example: Instead of: ‘The bride walked into the church and walked down the aisle to meet her groom.‘
Try: ‘The last bridesmaid made her way down the aisle as the processional music slowly faded out. There was a dramatic, slightly-awkward pause just before the first strains of ‘Canon in D’ echoed through the church. All eyes were on the back door, and slowly, the double-doors swung open, revealing the radiant bride on the arm of her father. A collective gasp was heard as the crowd absorbed the magnitude of this moment. Her nervousness was evident on her face, but as her eyes searched and then found the eyes of her groom, pure joy replaced any self-consciousness. The groom looked giddy as he watch his bride walk toward him. Everyone else in the room disappeared as their eyes locked – and then their hands locked together at altar.‘
OK, this is a little dramatic, but you get my point. Adding those important details paints a picture that you don’t want your readers to forget. It invites the reader to the wedding – or any moment you are describing.
Why this works: Rather than squash all that emotion in one sentence, stretch it out in a scene that can really make the reader feel like he/she is there. Dialogue works great here, too – especially if it is a significant or memorable conversation.
Warning: Pick and choose carefully which moments to expand. If you expand too many moments, the story can get tedious. Think of the moments you really want your reader to remember; expand those. The incidentals you can breeze over. Also, as above, beware of melodrama.
Stylistically, these tips won’t make you the literary version of Heidi Klum overnight – but these are small, accessible changes you can make immediately to improve your writing. It might feel forced at first, but soon it will be feeling like you’ve been doing this all your life.
If you try these, let me know how it works for you. What tips work well for you?
[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]