There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to be artful and eloquent in your writing style. But as a book editor, I’ve more than once worked with authors who let their need to be literary, or dramatic, or emphatic undercut rather than complement their stories. Like all of us, these are writers seeking out their narrative voice and unique writing style. Yet in the process, they’ve forgotten a basic truism of writing:
The primary purpose of all writing is to convey information.
It sounds pretty boring when you put it like that, but it’s true. Writing is meant to convey ideas to readers. Writing style conveys information too, but it’s important that you don’t let your stylistic choices confuse the substance of your words or your story. So, here are 5 tips to help you navigate the tightrope between writing style and clarity.
Bigger Words are Not Always Better
I was once the fiction editor for a very talented writer whose writing style habitually avoided common words in favor of more complex words. Instead of the word “house,” for example, she would opt for the word “household.”
There’s just one problem: “house” and “household” are not actually synonyms. A house is a building, but “household” refers to what is in the house, most often its occupants. Similarly, the author favored “backside” over “back,” but “backside” is more commonly understood not as a synonym for “back,” but rather “butt.” It is, at best, an imprecise substitution.
And precision is the key. The more exact word with respect to what you mean to convey is better than the bigger word every time.
Dramatic Words are Not Better Either
Some words are big not in length, but in scope, and some writers favor them when their aim is to be grandiose or dramatic. We see such writing when a setback is said to rip apart a character’s soul, or crush their hopes and dreams, or rend apart their entire universe. The heavens may weep at their despair.
But like the unnecessarily complex words discussed above, these word choices are ineffective because they’re inexact. Because they can be applied so generally, and so often are, they’re clichés as well. You can’t rely on broad and abstract notions to convey the specific experience of your specific characters. We call writing like this melodrama. It’s a way of insisting upon the significance of action rather than actually showing it.
Emotional resonance, though, comes not from big words, but rather from well-crafted characters and story. If you want to convey despair, the word “despair” isn’t going to do it.
Repetition Only Repeats
Another very common way in which writers insist upon the significance of their writing is repetition. We discussed this in our series on overwriting. In fact, let’s bring back an example from that post.
A writing style that includes repetition may look something like this:
Gregory was trapped, his ankles bound, in the space-dungeon of the space vampires. He kept pulling at the chain that held him, but he could not remove it. The space vampires had him trapped pretty good. No matter how hard he pulled, he could not escape. His ankles were bound, and though he struggled, there was no way out of the space vampires’ space-dungeon in space.
The intent, of course, is to emphasize that Gregory is trapped. But repetition does not emphasize. It only repeats. Gregory doesn’t feel any more trapped by saying it five times, and the more you repeat, the more readers tune out.
So, if you want to emphasize, don’t repeat. Instead, build. For instance, are Gregory’s ankles bleeding from his efforts to escape? Is Earth doomed if he doesn’t escape in the next ten minutes? Details like these can clarify and define the danger, and they have the added benefit of creating more showing in your work without simply telling the reader, repeatedly, about the danger.
Less is Not Always More
Some writers have the opposite problem, replacing repetition with a minimalistic writing style. But one of the greatest challenges for authors is to get outside your own head so you can recognize how much information readers truly need to understand your story. It’s as easy to write too little (underwriting) as too much (overwriting). Consider this:
Gregory was trapped in space jail.
This resolves the repetition above for sure. But it also lacks the details readers need to engage with the situation. The writing is clear, but not compelling. We still need context if our writing is to capture readers.
The truth is that most guidelines and practices in writing can be broken. Repetition may reflect a character’s state of mind. Melodrama may work if the intent is to evoke the particular tone of a different era. You can use run-on sentences to demonstrate panicked thoughts or fragments to denote fast-moving action.
But if in the process your object is so far removed from your verb that the sentence can’t be understood, it doesn’t matter. If we lose the basic touchstones of setting and action in the service of a stylistic quirk, then the result is still more confusing than compelling.
It’s worth repeating: The primary function of writing is to convey information.
Keep in mind the fundamental questions we ask in journalism and other forms of informational writing: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Whatever other deviations your writing style may take as it grows and develops, be sure you don’t fall out of the habit of giving readers this basic context.
Zeroing in on your unique writing style can be a lifelong journey. And your writing style will likely evolve as you grow as a writer. Being literary is great. Having a wide vocabulary is impressive. Finding a voice all your own is crucial.
But none of it matters if readers can’t understand or engage with what you’ve written.
How would you describe your voice? How did you develop it? Let us know in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.