Composition I, Education, Writers on Writing

What’s your writing style? Do you have one?

Timberlake performing at St. Paul, Minnesota, ...
Are you the Justin Timberlake of writing? | Timberlake performing at St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the venues of his first worldwide tour, FutureSex/LoveShow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Style is an essential element of writing that can take decades to master. Writing students are often confused about what constitutes their style. Sometimes it is helpful to discuss style in an alternate medium, such as fashion, to draw an analogy that students can understand.

Consider this. I have two sons, aged 7 and 14. They are both sloppy dressers. My 7-year-old doesn’t really think about his “style.” Sure, he has a couple of favorite shirts that he would wear every single day if I would allow it. He prefers elastic-waist athletic pants over denim jeans because they are more comfortable. However, his clothing choices consist mostly of wearing the first item of clothing he can get his hands on when he reaches into his closet. The only reason he wears matching socks is because I match them up for him when I do the laundry. The result is often sloppy, but he doesn’t look sloppy on purpose. He just doesn’t know any better.

At this point, I am not too concerned with my younger son’s wardrobe choices as long as I can get him to dress appropriately for the weather. We live in Wisconsin, and we’re heading into the final days of October. The time for wearing shorts has passed. Now, my main concern regarding his daily dress is that he makes it out of the house each morning wearing long pants, socks, appropriate footwear, a sweatshirt, and a jacket. He is still learning the basic rules of dressing himself. There’s no room for worrying about style at this point.

On the other hand, my teenager puts a lot of thought into his sloppy style. You might say he’s a sloppy dresser on purpose. He long ago learned the basic rules of dressing himself. For a time, he enjoyed wearing polo shirts and button-down shirts with collars. There was (a VERY short) stretch of time where he looked downright nice when he dressed himself. But that was before he moved into middle school and began to learn about “style.”

There comes a time in every kid’s life when dressing is no longer about making sure you wear appropriate clothing for the weather. Once you have learned the basic rules of dressing yourself, you begin to consider your individual style. Yes, that “individual” style often consists of mimicking what everyone else in your social group is wearing. And that’s okay, for a time. But the more creative youngsters will eventually break free from the social norms and experiment with styles of their own.

Those who have a natural flair for style may eventually become fashion icons. They can wear styles your average clothes-wearer wouldn’t dream of, and they can get away with it. They first learned the rules and then learned when it is okay to break the rules. They earned the right to dress however they please. Those who grow up to be Lady Gaga can wear meat and call it art. I don’t know about you, but if I try to wear meat, someone will have me committed.

Now, let’s apply this analogy to writing style. If you consistently use passive language in your writing, overuse pronouns, and struggle to write complete sentences, then you have not yet obtained a level of writing mastery where you may seriously lay claim to a writing “style.” Face it; at this point, you are still learning how to match your writing socks.

If a writing or editing professional gives you feedback of this manner, chances are you have not yet earned the right to cry foul over an editor’s (or a teacher’s) attempt to impose her style on you. You haven’t yet earned the right to whine, “But that’s my style!” You may choose to say it if you like, but that writing professional is probably going to roll her eyes really hard and respond with something to the effect of, “So you’re telling me sloppy writing is your style?”

There is a distinct difference between a writer whose writing is sloppy because of underdeveloped writing skills and a writer who chooses to write in a sloppy manner with a specific purpose in mind. It is the same difference that lies between my 7-year-old who dresses sloppily because he doesn’t know any better and my 14-year-old who dresses sloppy because that’s his chosen style.

The distance between the underdeveloped writer and Ernest Hemingway is comparable to the distance between my 7-year-old’s fashion style and Justin Timberlake’s fashion style (NOTE: I had to Google male fashion icons to see who’s hot right now, and Google chose JT. If Google says so, it must be right, right?)

So, take a hard look at your own writing and determine whether you have earned the right to lay claim to a style. If you are still struggling over passive language and wordy sentences, you probably still have some work to do. Learn the rules first and learn how to properly apply them. Only then have you earned the right to experiment and develop your own style.

~Amanda L. Webster

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