This is page four of a guide to Writing Well. This page focuses on four elements of style:
Pardon me while I open a wormhole into your brain and pump style advice into it.
See, that’s an example of style.
I could have just said: "And now let’s learn about style."
What gives a world-class author their "voice?"
Well, ask your friends what it's like to talk to you. Maybe they’ll mention your:
Convey those traits in your writing, and readers recognize your voice. Meaning, I don't think voice is your choice of words. It's your unfiltered self reflected on paper.
In early drafts, I like to discard my reflex to self-censor. Talk vulnerably like you do with friends. In later drafts, you can remove sensitive details.
Until then, it's a confession.
True voice is the art of forgetting the medium you're using: whatever others' expectations are of "good writing," forget them—from sentence structure, tone, formality. Throw out the consensus to take the shortest path from your brain to the word—whatever that looks like.
Even bad writing can be enjoyable when the author speaks like they would to a lifelong friend. Take this to whatever extreme you're comfortable with.
Inauthentic voice happens for a few reasons:
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.
Part of an author's style is in how they describe the world—how vivid the images and emotion are that they conjure.
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.
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."
To engage a reader's senses, you can do more than just add vivid details. You can also swap plain phrases for more engaging ones.
Pay attention to the bold words, which now create metaphors:
What makes those quotes beautiful is their use of words that are uncommonly found in those contexts but whose meaning is nonetheless clear.
A common technique for applying metaphor is to ascribe human qualities to inanimate things. This gives inaminate things an inner life:
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 (Source).
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.
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.
In a first-order description, you directly describe how something is.
The day was hot.
This is how we commonly talk.
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 determine that the day was therefore hot.
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 and puzzle-solving, 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. It's a more evocative and original way to set a scene than "the day was hot."
In short, consider finding evocative, unconventional ways to say meaningful things. It forces readers to use their imaginations to piece ideas together. You engage their minds and no longer spoon-feed each detail. Now they meditate on your implications.
Instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we’ll be terrified.
There are infinite ways to tell your story. I write about storytelling here.
How you tell your story is a matter of presentation:
Would analogies, anecdotes, or multimedia help better convey your ideas? If so, consider using them. They can help your ideas resonate.
The next page contains the downloadable cheatsheet that recaps this entire guide.
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