Adding Style to Your Writing

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

Writing style

Style has three components:

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

How would your friends describe talking to you? Perhaps they’ll mention your:

Convey those same traits in your writing, and readers will recognize your voice.

The more authentic your voice, the more they'll relate.

Vulnerability

If you're comfortable doing so, practice being radically honest: Discard your reflex to self-censor. Reveal your vulnerabilities. Talk like you do with friends.

Even bad writing is enjoyable when the author writes like they’ve known their reader since childhood. It’s a breath of fresh air. It feels personal.

Vulnerability is also half the recipe for memorability: the combination of vulnerability and profound insights makes for an unforgettable article. It makes readers pause and seek out your newsletter or Twitter account.

Inauthenticity

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

Writers also absorb fake prestige: They use words like "plethora" and “myriad.” But if they don’t use those words in conversation, they shouldn’t use them in their writing. They’ll just look pretentious.

The antidote to inauthenticity is reminding yourself how you talk with friends. Record yourself talking, transcribe it, and work off 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 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 better entertain your readers or help convey your points? If so, consider using them.

Style is creativity

Style is also creativity, which is the art of delighting readers with poetic thought and language.

Vividness

To explain vividness, here are 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."

Let's examine a paragraph with low vividness. The following sentences do not summon atmosphere within your mind—nor do they resonate emotionally:

I sat in the office with other men. The furniture was hyper-modern and uninviting. The Dean sat before me. He made an effort to appear kind, and perhaps he was, but he made one thing certain: he was firmly in control.

Now here's David Foster Wallace's approach to the same scene:

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside... The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I've come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me."

— Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Vividness is more than just detail. It's detail that resonates.

The vividness of writing is analagous to cranking the saturation dial on an image.

A whole novel of prose like this is nearly unreadable. But splashes spread throughout more efficient prose is what helps you transcend the page.

For me, language is a freedom. 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

Poetry

I like to define poetry as finding evocative and unconventional ways to make meaningful statements. For example, instead of saying "the day was hot," you could write that “even the bugs were looking for air conditioning.”

In that example, we're indirectly describing the effect caused by the object being focused on as opposed to directly describing the object and its status. In other words, it's a step removed from a straightforward telling of the events.

The more steps removed you can be while still successfully communicating your meaning, the more "poetic" your prose can feel. Further, the more profound your underlying point is, the more "deep" your prose feels.

When to use creativity

Add creativity only after you've rewritten your draft for clarity. Clarity before style.

Style is most appropriate for simpler passages—to help simple ideas resonate stronger. In contrast, adding creativity to complex passages can make its dense ideas even harder to follow.

This section is halfway done

This isn't a complete breakdown of style, voice, and creative writing. I'll be updating this in 2021.

Examples of style

Takeaways

Copyediting

Copyediting is the process of combing through sentences word-by-word to:

This makes your writing only marginally better. Don't spend too much time on this.

Below, I'll cover:

Grammar

If you write clearly and punctuate mostly correctly, you know all the grammar you need. If not, here’s my companion post on punctuation.

If you really want to dive into grammar, here’s the book to buy!

Visual density

Minimize adverbs and adjectives

Swap synonyms

Swapping words for their synonyms serves two purposes: enriching and reducing your language.

Enriching

You enrich words by swapping them for new ones with greater specificity or emotional weight.

For example:

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

Reducing

Reducing words is the opposite of enriching: it's reverting to more common language to make sentences easier to read.

For example:

“I obtained maximal status” could become “I reached the highest status.”
Or, “Her diction is brilliant” could become “Her word choice is brilliant.”

If the reduced word doesn't lack important details, use it. By default, keep sentences simple. After high school, no one pats you on the back for using big words.

Don’t write to sound smart. Write to be useful. If you’re useful over a long time period, you will end up looking smart anyway.
— James Clear

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Page V — Becoming an expert

Learn how to practice writing and hone the craft.

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