Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Developing Your Writing Style, Part Two

Last post from me, I wrote about developing your writing style and offered a few tips to help you on your writing journey.

Here are more tips to consider when you get before the page with the idea of revising your work to heighten the STYLE of your work.

1. Check your VERBS. Do this for two things: to have active voice in your writing and to create strong verbs. Readers expect to see ACTION in your story. They want the characters to perform, to act – not necessarily be acted upon. When characters perform the action, we have active voice. When the characters are acted upon, we have passive voice – which is seen with the use of “to be” verbs. Let’s say Stella is the main character of a story. If we write, “Stella was killed by the angry mob,” are we doing passive or active voice? If you thought “passive,” you’re right. We could make this a stronger statement by writing, “The angry mob killed Stella.” Look for “to be” verbs and “have” verbs in your writing; if you can find strong, more meaningful verbs to replace them, you can help develop your style and the strength of your prose.

2. Pay attention to WORD CHOICE. Listen to your work with your narrator’s ears; the words you use must illustrate the natural reflection of your narrator. Your words must illustrate the natural reflections of your characters, too. For example, most people talk in contractions. When I read prose that is full of “cannot” and “is not” and “do not” and “should not,” I hear elevation in the voice of the character, I feel a coldness, a stiffness to the character; it doesn’t sound real to me. At the end of the day, you want your characters and your narrator(s) to be as real as you are. Make sure their words reflect that.

3. Avoid STEREOTYPES. It’s easy to fall into the “stock character” trap. People in the hood act “this” way; whereas, people in metropolitan areas act “that” way. Black characters must be X, and white characters must be Y. Though some (and I’m part of that some) would argue that for every stereotype there is a drop of truth, using stereotypes shows that you are not using your creativity, you are not making your characters, your storylines intrinsically yours.

The last two tips seem silly, but you’d be amazed at how many writers DON’T follow them.

4. READ voraciously. Read, and read everything. Don’t just read the genres you write in. Don’t just read the genres you love to read. Read a myriad of things. We often develop our style – in the early stages of our writing – by emulating those before us. I adore Toni Morrison for her poetic style, and once in a blue moon, someone might find a line of mine that’s full of poetic verve. By reading, you can learn what you like and don’t like, and knowing that can help you focus your writing to where you want it to be.

5. WRITE. Write whenever you can. You can’t work out the bad things in your writing if you don’t write. Simply reading about how to be a better writer won’t do. You need to practice your craft, to have an eye for what to fix in your work, and then practice some more. Someone said “Practice makes perfect” for a reason.


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Another well written and easy to understand article. One of the simplest and best explanations of "passive" and "active" voicing I've read. Nice job!

  2. Good post. I also noticed how well you explained the passive/active voice. And that last paragraph about practising the craft. I like Toni Morrison too, her style.

  3. Excellent advice and demonstration in this blog. I also agree whole-heartedly with the last two paragraphs.

    Wyatt at Pan Historia

  4. excellent suggestions. good job.
    Jo Ann Hernandez

  5. Nice article, Shon. I'm a big fan of Toni Morrison, too, and believe that a writer can benefit from reading a great variety of styles.

  6. Great suggestions. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind is the last word you should use in a manuscript.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Thanks for the comments, :-)

    I'm actually teaching style to my mass comm. students right now - style and audience. I'm having them write letters, one to a parent and one to a best friend, in which they relay the same secret to both letter recipients.

    It's awesome to see how their voice and their style changes from one letter to the next.

    It's also a great exercise for writers to practice to hear and see the many styles and voices they can have.


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