Your Elements of Style

Your Elements of Style

Your writing style is a little like your clothes sense; it’s something you develop to suit yourself and to make a statement about yourself to others. You can read about what would reveal your personality, what would flatter you, what would create a memorable impression on others, but the particular jeans, T-shirt, sandals, suit, or coat you choose has resonance in your needs and ambitions in ways that advice-givers can’t appreciate.

Your choice of long sentences or a short, rollicking profusion of adjectives or sparse and economical descriptions are part of who you are and what you value. I admire the style of Gillian Cross with her lush and evocative imagery, but I could never write in her style. I also admire the terse, efficient work of Judy Blume which is much different. Both writers have a developed a style that expresses their ideas in their individual ways. A Richard Scarry book differs greatly from a Beatrix Potter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books differ from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.

It may be style that ultimately creates empathy in your reader. Do your readers care about your characters? The story is flat if the reader doesn’t care if your protagonist wins or loses. How much your readers care depends on the way you present your characters and that is, to some extent, a matter of style.

Style also includes the use of metaphors, similes, and imagery that makes writing so fascinating. Good imagery fits precisely into the story and enlivens it. Inappropriate or forced imagery strikes the reader as odd, as if that particular piece of prose belongs in a different book.

Consider the difference between the following two pieces of writing. The first is my rough draft of Cutting It Close (James Lorimer and Company). The second is the revision.

“Jessie and I were good, very good. We sliced around the barrels as close as peel to an apple and managed first place. Roxanne had to beat me next weekend on the last race to win. The championship was possible, totally possible, and so near to me now that I knew I could reach out and grab it.”

The problems with this first draft were the lack of concrete detail, lack of clarity about the importance of the race, and not enough information about Jayleen’s feelings. Here is the revised draft:

“Jessie and I raced that course with such precision that we could have modeled for a video called “How to Ride the Perfect Barrel Race.”      We sliced around the barrels as close as peel to an apple and took first place with three-tenths of a second to spare. One more win would nail down the provincial championship. Roxanne would have to beat me next weekend in the last race if she wanted that title. The championship was so near to me now, the brass ring shimmered in front of me so tantalizingly close, that I knew I could reach out and grab it.”

Working hard at the revision, I added interest, exposed the character a little better, and provided a change in the pace. Consider the difference between the first draft and the revision of the same book.

First draft:

“She definitely doesn’t want me to win, and I’m going to!”

Ashley smiled, and then looked thoughtful as she unlocked her truck. “She looked like she was bad-mouthing Roxanne. What for? For losing to you?”

Revised draft:

“She definitely doesn’t want me to win, and I’m going to!”

Ashley raised her fist in a victory salute.

[“Smiled” is a vague, nonspecific world. A victory salute is an action and can create a more vivid picture in the minds of the readers.]

I grinned.

[This shows some reaction on Jayleen’s part and puts her into the mind of the reader.]

Then, as she unlocked her truck, she looked irritated.

[“Irritated” is more interesting than “thoughtful” for it implies some kind of conflict, if only within Ashley.]

“Tracey was bad-mouthing Roxanne. What for? For losing to you? Tracey turns my stomach.”

[This is more decisive and seems to demand an answer much more than the first text.]

I agreed. Tracey was nauseous, poisonous, and obnoxious; a lousy coach and a disgusting person. I felt sorry for Roxanne.

[This list of adjectives imitates Jayleen’s grandmother who also expresses herself in a list of adjectives. So this bit of dialogue links Jayleen to her grandmother. As well, it allows the reader to see Jayleen as a girl of strong feelings.]

When you develop your style, be wary of clichés. They sneak into your writing like comfortable habits. You are used to them; everyone is used to them; they seem acceptable. Those common, ordinary phrases are usually too common. “As tricky as a snake,” “as fast as a bullet,” and “as dull as dishwater” are all over-used similes. Leave the old, comfortable clichés behind. Take ideas from the life of your character and create images from his or her experience. If your character is a skate-boarder you might say “as tricky as an S turn,” or “as fast as a twenty percent slope.” Take a fresh look at your character’s world and find ideas and images that come from that world.

From Writing for Children and Young Adults Self-Counsel Press