This is a question that came up at last week’s live Kick Start Your Book Q & A and there was such a lot of interest around it, I thought a more in-depth answer in the form of a blog post might be useful.
When I worked as copywriter, my writing style was dependent on the brand requirements of the client which were usually outlined in a tone of voice document. For example, if a brand liked to communicate with its audience in a casual, friendly manner, I would write according to that style using elements such as word choice, sentence structure, and grammar. Every writing project was different, and it was a useful exercise for me in understanding how voice and tone can impact language.
As a novelist, the freedom of being able to express my own voice without client restrictions was both liberating and terrifying. However, developing an authorial voice (or style) is a crucial part of the success of any book, helping it to stand out from the crowd. In my experience, it takes time and lots of writing practice but here are few other suggestions that might help.
1. Write the ‘what’, edit the ‘how’
When I write a chapter of a novel, I will often write a first draft quickly and without too much thought. My aim is to convey what happens in the story. The basic essence of my style is there, albeit hidden amongst the mistakes, cliches, and typos. When I come back to edit, I then focus on how I am conveying what happened in the story, in other words the style of writing. I will rewrite phrases, amend my word choice, adapt my sentence structure, and so on until a more definitive style is revealed. This two-part process might not work for everyone - I know authors who can’t move on to the next chapter until they’re one hundred per cent happy. However, this approach helps deal with the potential danger of not actually finishing the book.
2. Learn the rules and then break them
A solid understanding of language is the foundation for good writing. Just as a lawyer may have an innate skill for negotiating, he or she will still need to understand the principles of law in order to successfully apply that skill. Writing a book is the same – any talent for the written word will need a linguistic framework from which to emerge, giving you the confidence to step out of your comfort zone. Which leads me nicely on to my next point.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment
Experimenting with the written word can be one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a book and where better to do that than in storytelling? While your writing style should reflect who you are, don’t be afraid to push yourself creatively. If you dream of being published it can be tempting to follow the tried-and-tested literary devices or write to market but your unique style is what will capture the interest of an agent and / or publisher.
4. Manage any self-doubt
Self-doubt can be a constant companion for writers. Over the years, I’ve learnt to live with it as it takes too much energy to get rid of it completely. It does need to be contained though, otherwise it would kill all creativity. Learn to recognise when there may be other factors at play influencing your opinion of your manuscript. For example, if I’m tired or stressed, chances are I’m most likely to think my work is terrible. In those instances, I’ll save the work and review it the next day with a fresh (and hopefully less tired) pair of eyes.
5. Read widely
Every successful author has a distinct writing style which has been developed over the course of their career. As you’re reading their work, focus on how the writer uses grammar, words, and structure to tell the story. I remember a defining moment reading one of Peter James’ books and noticing that he often used short, staccato sentences when he wanted to convey suspense. Go beyond your favourite authors and explore lesser-known novelists as well.
Related posts: 5 Daily Writing Exercises To Improve Your Craft
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