Writing Style

This is page four of a guide to Writing Well. Start at page one.

Writing style

This page focuses on four elements of style:

Pardon me while I open a wormhole into your brain and thrust style advice into it.

See, that’s an example of style.

I could have just said: "And now let’s learn about style."

Style is voice

Ask your friends what it's like to talk to you. Perhaps they’ll mention your:

Convey those traits in your writing, and readers will recognize your voice. In other words, voice is not your choice of words. Voice is your unfiltered self.

In early drafts, discard your reflex to self-censor. Talk vulnerably like you do with friends. In later drafts, you can remove sensitive details. Until that point, treat it like a confession.

Even bad writing is enjoyable when the author speaks like they would to a childhood friend. Authenticity and vulnerability are a breath of fresh air.

Here's an example of vulnerability: "On disbelieving atrocities."

Inauthenticity

Inauthentic voice happens when you read a lot of someone else’s writing and absorb their style.

It also happens when you try to "write smart:" you use words like "plethora" or “myriad.” If you don’t use those words in conversation, don't use them in your writing. It's out-of-touch.

The antidote to inauthenticity is reminding yourself how you talk with friends. Record yourself talking, transcribe it, and work from that.

The authenticity of who you really are, as opposed to who you wish everyone thought you were, is what your audience is looking for.
—C. Robert Cargill

Style engages the senses

Style is also summoning images into a reader's mind.

One way to do this is via vividness. To explain vividness, here are writer Venkatesh Rao's remarks on the vividness of author David Foster Wallace:

"When I read a Wallace passage, it's like looking at a pinprick-sharp photograph—compared to my own blurry photographs. He unerringly picks words to use that simply work 100x better than my choices. It's like he has a 15 megapixel camera and a tripod, while I am using a three megapixel point-and-shoot. A bigger vocabulary isn't enough. The skill lies in matching words to needs."

Here's an example of vividness:

One of my favorite moments of the year involved a beetle doing yoga on a desert dune. In the Namib desert in Africa, the darkling beetle's day begins with an ascent of a massive sand dune. A tiny creature faced with a Himalaya-sized trek. Undeterred, it marches on, its legs as skinny as a runner's, up towards the summit above which a fog from the Atlantic hovers.

When it gets there, the beetle inverts its body into a headstand and stands very still. Then magic occurs. No, wait, it is something more fantastic than magic, it is nature. This is a planet about to do some of its very best work.

Droplets of water form on its shell as the fog condenses on its body. Then slowly, using grooves in the beetle's casing, the water rolls into its thirsty mouth. This is how life is sustained on earth.

—Rohit Brijnath

It's akin to cranking the saturation dial in Photoshop.

Notice how vividness isn't just detail. It's detail that resonates. It's the articulation of the rarely articulated nuances of life—in a way that makes you remark, "Ahh, that’s how I'd put words to that feeling."

Word choice

To engage a reader's senses, you can do more than just add vivid details. You can also swap plain words for engaging ones.

Watch how I switch words out here:

“Here is my story of breaking into Hollywood.”
→ “Here is my tale of breaking into Hollywood.”
“After college, I traveled to India.”
→ “After college, I journeyed to India.”

I'm now using words with greater specificity or emotional weight.

We can push further. We can extend beyond literal language to use figurative. Pay attention to the bold words, which now create metaphors:

Those are all famous quotes. What makes them beautiful is their use of metaphorical synonyms in place of plain words. Specifically, they're using words that are uncommonly used in these contexts but whose meaning is nonetheless clear. To do this yourself, use a thesaurus to hunt for great word pairings.

A common technique for applying metaphor is to ascribe human qualities to inanimate things. This gives inaminate things dimensionality:

  1. Angry storms
  2. Shrieking sirens
  3. Dancing leaves
  4. Coy flames
  5. Tired gears

This gets us back to the goal of evoking a reader's senses. One study showed that brain scan participants who read the words "He had a rough day" activated neural regions associated with feeling texture, whereas those who read "He had a bad day" didn't trigger the same effect.

As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience.
—Jeanette Winterson

Style engages the imagination

Style engages the imagination. When it does so elegantly, we call this poetry.

I define poetry as finding evocative, unconventional ways to say meaningful things.

For example, instead of saying "the day was hot," you could write “even the bugs were looking for air conditioning.”

In that example, we're describing the effect caused by our subject (the hot day)—as opposed to directly describing the heat itself. In other words, poetry is one step removed from a straightforward description of the events.

The more steps you can be removed while still successfully communicating the meaning, the more "elegant" your poetry feels. The more profound your underlying point, the more "deep" your poetry feels.

Let's walk through an example using a framework I devised.

First-order description

In a first-order description, you directly describe how something is.

The day was hot.

This is how we commonly talk.

Second-order description

In a second-order description, you describe something by stating an effect it has on its environment.

The day melted our popsicles.

The reader can imply that the day was therefore hot.

Third-order description

In a third-order description, you describe something by stating its effect but not mentioning the cause by name.

Our popsicles melted.

Above, there's ambiguity as to why our popsicles melted. But with a bit of imagination, the reader pieces it together.

However, our sentence isn't very poetic yet. To get there, we choose an effect that is unconventional, counterintuitive, or witty:

Even the bugs were looking for air conditioning.

This style of writing evokes mental imagery and world-building. That's a more evocative and original way to set a scene than writing "the day was hot."

In short, I personally define poetry as unconventional third-order descriptions.

Instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we’ll be terrified.—C.S. Lewis

Style is presentation

There are infinite ways to tell your story. How you tell it is a matter of presentation:

Would analogies, anecdotes, humor, or multimedia help better convey your ideas? If so, consider using them. You want your ideas to resonate.

Takeaways

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Learn how to practice writing and hone the craft.

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