Welcome to this week’s Nitty-Gritty Editing. I’m revisiting the topic of consistency as it relates to style. If you didn’t read my last blog concerning consistency, you may want to go back and do that. We tend to build on ideas discussed in previous blogs. But, as always, you can still get something from this blog post as a standalone. I have a tendency to think in major content editing terms, so I have to remind myself (and you) that this blog is aimed for the detailed editing that you do once the major content editing is done. Your story should be solid by this point. This blog post is to make your good story into a great one. And greatness is in the details. So let’s talk some of the details of style.
At its core, style is the method you choose to deliver your story. You could have a style made up of brevity, complex words, hard dashes, simple sentences, plenty of description, and minimal dialogue. You could also have the complete opposite, or some combination in between. I don’t care so much what your style is—I want it to be consistent and intentional. It’s important to reexamine your style once you’ve finished your story. I often find that as I grow as a writer, my writing style naturally begins to change, especially when I am reading a book at the same time and I start to write like that author. Copying another author’s style is fine, especially as a writing exercise, but don’t forget to go back through and carve out your own for the finished product.
As you look at the next points, keep in mind that your style can and should change based on the type of story you’re writing and its intended audience. You will understandably choose a different style of writing for a children’s mystery book than you would for a science fiction book for adults. Genres come with certain expectations, and your style should start with those expectations and go from there. Remember I’m trying to encourage intentionality behind each of these points. No matter where you are in the writing journey, you can look at these now and start making intentional choices with your writing. Doing so will only make your story stronger sooner.
Brevity vs. Lengthiness
Are you short and to the point? Or do you like to expand on your point, discuss every detail, and bring your reader along for the journey? Brevity compresses meaning, letting each word take on implicit and explicit meaning. Done well, it can leave you breathless like the first smack of 60 mph winds. Lengthiness expands meaning, exploring each detail’s uniqueness, turning the implicit and explicit meaning around like the facets of a diamond. Done well, it can leave you breathless like a brisk walk on a cool spring morning.
Neither choice is wrong, but examine what you’ve naturally chosen and carry that decision out consistently throughout the whole story. This will help your readers feel like the piece is connected. But if you switch sporadically, the story will feel disjointed and jarring, like weather that can’t make up its mind.
Complex Words vs. Simple Words
This choice can stem from your story’s intended audience perhaps the most out of all of these; you typically won’t use too many complicated words for a children’s book, but you can for adults. Complex words can even just be uncommon words. Be intentional when using them because they will cause readers to pause, either to look the word up or because it was an unexpected word choice.
I will admit I do actually have a bias against both of these as extremes. If the author uses too many complex words, it comes across as pretentious. If there are too many simple words, it comes across as belittling. Balance between the two is ideal. Don’t forget to read out loud to help determine this sentence by sentence; if there are five four-syllable words in one sentence, you might want to rethink its wordiness.
Punctuation and Sentence Structure
Yes, even punctuation goes into style. Ever notice how many of our punctuation marks can substitute for the others? Want to take out those crowding commas and replace them with parenthesis? Grammatically, you can (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it). Do you want to use a semi-colon to connect two thoughts instead of a simple period? You can; it will get annoying every other sentence though. You can use em dashes the same way—or even as you would use commas—but it gives you a different feel.
Some authors use punctuation everywhere (Herman Melville) and some hardly use it at all (Cormac McCarthy). The reason they can get away with it is because they are consistent in how they’ve chosen to use their punctuation. My advice to you is to find some balance between all these decisions. Carry out your style consistently so it will feel intentional and powerful rather than haphazard and weak.
Punctuation helps determine sentence structure. McCarthy is required to carefully craft his sentences because he doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue. In Melville’s case, his asides and dependent clauses require punctuation; otherwise we’d get lost in his prose. McCarthy’s sentence structures are determined by his punctuation choice. Melville’s punctuation choices are determined by his sentence structures. If McCarthy had switched his style halfway through a story to copy Melville, it wouldn’t feel like the same author had written it. Both are consistent to their own styles.
I know there is the temptation to try different styles, especially as you still learn to develop your own. But dedicate one style per story. Some authors separate their styles so much that they have three different pen names for the different genres they write for.
Balance between Setting and Dialogue
Another decision you need to examine is the balance between setting, dialogue, and character. I say balance because all are needed. Still, some authors will choose to have minimal setting and stay in a character’s mind instead. Others will do minimal dialogue and describe the setting endlessly. Find the balance of what your story requires and stick to it; if it’s not balanced it will register with readers instead of resonating with them.
For example, if you describe the setting every time you start a scene, and then suddenly you don’t, it registers with the readers. If you have a lengthy description for each character, but suddenly Bob shows up and he doesn’t get one, the readers instinctively feel jipped. If you put all dialogue in scene and then suddenly you start summarizing all dialogue, your readers will feel frustrated. Establishing the balance of how you reveal these is another promise to your readers; they want to know what to expect. If you break these promises, they will be unsatisfied, even if they can’t put academic words as to why.
Mild vs. Graphic
This choice can be largely determined by the type of story you’re writing, but it’s worth examining. If you rated your style (and your story), would it be G, PG, PG13, R? Why it would be rated that way is just as important: language, violence, sex, etc. Your style should fit the story and the rating. Be mindful of who you’re writing for. If your story ended up being for young adults, then maybe the R rated style you have going on needs to be toned down.
Style is hard to nail down and explain, and it feels like I haven’t even explored the surface yet. No wonder people devote entire books to this subject. Still, I hope this blog helps you to think about editing for style in a more detailed way. Different styles appeal to different people, and I will be honest, I don’t like them all. Maybe I’ll be able to explore why I’ll stop reading a book because of style in a future blog post. I know I’m not finished discussing style in general yet, because I didn’t even get into breaking stylistic choices like I had originally planned.
For now, suffice it to say that even if a style doesn’t appeal to my personal tastes, I will respect it if it’s consistent and intentional. Best of luck incorporating these principles into your editing journeys!
By Tracy Buckler