Is trying to improve your style a bad thing?

By Stan Eales

Ink and Quill by Stan Eales

Another great podcast by the Writing Excuses team, this time on style and voice:

Quesion: is it dangerous as a writer to try to improve your style?

A lot of respected authors say it’s foolishness to focus on style. Because story is what people want. Story is the thing. Put all the lipstick you want on a pig, it’s never going to be anything but a pig.

I agree with them. Why fiddle with the words when the content oinks? If you have to focus on something, focus on delivering killer stories.

However, story content is not everything. There is a feeling that comes with how the story is written. You can serve prime rib on fine china in a $100 / plate restaurant, or you can serve it in a cardboard box out on the back lawn by the shed. Same beef, but not quite the same experience.

Orson Card is one of those who cautions against thinking about trying to improve your style. I want you to read this.  

Question 5:

I would like to use the discussion in Lesson One as a springboard to my own inquiry. I understand that obsessively analyzing the style in which one writes can lead to bigger problems. However, my problem is not with an overall stylistic deficiency, but a very specific one. Through dialogue, the voices of the characters speak with one another. Are there any techniques you can offer which make the process of composing dialogue any easier? (I don’t expect a wonder formula, just some methods which would help me organize my thoughts a little better.)

— Submitted by Jennifer Dittrich

OSC Replies:

Composing Dialogue

The secret is not to think about dialogue as a separate task. You aren’t writing dialogue, you’re writing an encounter between characters. Part of the encounter is what they say, but part of it is how they react to each other, what they want from each other, what has happened between them in the past, who else is watching and the impression they want to make, and so on. When the characters speak, therefore, they aren’t “speaking dialogue,” they’re using words to do something to the other person — sometimes to try to get the other person to understand some information, but more often to get the other person to do something or feel something or reveal something. That’s what you concentrate on, and then come up with words you might use to accomplish that character’s purpose. Sometimes you’ll try many different opening lines as a conversation begins, and see where they go; sometimes you’ll erase long passages because they don’t feel right to you. But the solution to dialogue problems is rarely to “write better dialogue.” It’s almost always to clarify or change what the character wants or feels or thinks.

Most often, bad dialogue is bad because it’s “clunky.” The usual cause is that you’re trying to “write well,” and your idea of writing well comes from the horrible essays you were forced to write in high school and college. Forget all that! But don’t forget it just when you’re writing dialogue — that’s bad writing even in the essays and papers produced by those very same teachers! Good writing sounds like a person talking. Your narrative sections should be written in fluid language that can easily be read aloud. In other words, your narrative should sound like dialogue spoken by a good storyteller!

So if you worry about your writing style, especially your dialogue writing, chances are that the problem you have is that you are worrying about your writing style instead of worrying about what happens and why in the story! Bad style is almost invariably the result of trying for “good style,” because “good style” is invariably defined by writing teachers and the students who believe them as “writing like someone else who writes better than you.” But you can’t write like them, because you’re not them and their voice isn’t your voice. You can only write well when you write the way you talk, only more clearly and precisely. If you are laboriously constructing your sentences, searching in the thesaurus for “just the right word,” you are almost certainly writing unreadably; and, while you might only notice it in your dialogue, chances are you are writing badly all the time.

How do you cure this destructive habit? Let me give you a parallel example. When I was a child, I had a lyric boy-soprano voice, complete with vibrato. I sang high and sweetly, and that ability to sing was an important part of who I was. But when my voice changed, the “high” was gone and so was the sweet. Grimly determined to get my voice back, I forced a vibrato using very bad technique — a strained, rapid diaphragmatic vibrato rather than one that arises from a relaxed throat. It made my voice sound eccentric and unpleasant — and the tightness that resulted severely limited my range. I went through my college career with that voice, even though I knew it didn’t sound all that good, because I didn’t know how to do it better.

Then I went to Brazil as a missionary. Nobody there knew me as a performer. No one cared how I sang. I stripped away the old pretense and sang “straight,” with clear tone, no vibrato at all. I learned to relax my throat. I sounded like nothing; and then, to my surprise, a genuine, relaxed vibrato began to enter my voice on sustained notes. And my singing range increased, both higher and lower. When I came home, my singing voice was a far more versatile and powerful instrument than it had ever been before. During my forced-vibrato years, I couldn’t “do voices” — I could only sing the one way. Now I could take my relaxed voice and shape it to sound like an old man singing, or a child, or an untrained singer, or an operatic buffoon. I could sing conversationally; I could sing formally. I had my voice at last.

But I had to stop trying to force my voice and just relax, concentrating on the song and not the singer. Before I could sing well, I had to stop trying to sing well and concentrate on singing clearly, singing to the audience.

And if you don’t understand how this applies to writing style, I’m not a good enough writer to explain it to you any better.

You can read it on his site here:

Lots of great insights there. How many ways can you say, “Please, focus on the content of the story!”

But did you notice this line: ” Your narrative sections should be written in fluid language that can easily be read aloud. In other words, your narrative should sound like dialogue spoken by a good storyteller! ”

And this one: “You can only write well when you write the way you talk, only more clearly and precisely.”

Card is talking about improving your style to make it more clear and fluid and authentic to you. Even while warning this questioner as strongly as possible to avoid trying to improve your style, Card prescribes improving your style.

So style matters, even to Card. It just doesn’t matter nearly as much, in most cases, as content does. And I agree with him on his priorities.

However, I still think Card is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Maybe because he’s seen too many wretched stories that had great style. Nevertheless, there IS a way that each of us talks. We talk that way out of habit, but also because we like some of those turns of phrases. Because certain sounds, words, and rhythms appeal to us at some level. Because they feel right.

So what if you’re reading TC Boyle and love the rhythm of his prose? What if you figure out some of what drives that rhythm? What if you begin to use it in your writing? Is that bad?

Or what if you notice how David Farland always puts movement into descriptive passages? Or that you use “really” and “very” really a lot in very many places? What if you like how Dean Koontz stops to paint his characters? His use of metaphor to evoke an image of a person? What if you notice how some of Card’s prose works poetically?

What if your editor notices something you do that jars him so much it sets his teeth to rattling, and when he points it out you agree?

What if you pick up new stylistic elements and options and try them? Are you then going to write excrement?

No. You’re not. Because it’s natural to pick up words, phrases, manners of speaking. It’s natural to try them on. In fact, trying to AVOID this is what’s unnatural.

I used to work with a guy named Rick Jendro. He looks like a young Sylvester Stallone. One thing I loved about him was that he is a wonderful water cooler story teller. Rick used his hands and voice and face when telling his water cooler stories. He wasn’t Acting with a capital A, but he was acting. He was evoking the story. He reminded me of another friend, Jeff Cuthbert, who did the same thing.

I loved listening to both of them. LOVED IT. Partly because of this acting they did.

So I noticed what Rick was doing and Jeff had been doing. The next time I told a story I let myself be a bit more free with my hand motions and actions. I didn’t study movements or anything like that. Didn’t rehearse. I found they just came when I reminded myself to let them come. I tell a better story today than I did before because of this.

Was I wrong to delight in what they did and try it? I don’t think so. There’s nothing wrong with imitation. Good gravy, that’s how we learned language in the first place.

My advice, lowly writer that I am, is to read and imitate. Notice things. Notice every thing that sings. Every thing that clunks. From character to plot to punctuation to paragraphing to dialogue to whatever. Then try things on. Try on structures and plot twists and dilemmas. Try on paragraphing and poetical devices like simile and metaphor. Try on everything that strikes your fancy. Get a whole closet of outfits that feel wonderful on your bones.

And when you write, just write. Don’t worry about the style because all these new outfits you’ve got: the ones that feel most natural for the task at hand will present themselves to you when the time is right. I promise.

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