10 Ways to Identify Your Writing Style
By Madeleine Mozley
When I studied writing in college, there was never a lesson about voice. Setting? Check. Character? Yep. Plot? You bet. I heard endless platitudes about writing dialogue and appealing to the senses. Nearly every writing class spent at least one lecture on the anatomy of a story and made sure to discuss the importance of denouement. But in those four years, there was one aspect of writing that no professor taught—voice/style. It was never in the lesson plan, apparently impossible to quantify. They could break down all the complexities and nuances of creating a character—an entire person with history, thoughts, motivations, and speech patterns. But a student wants to know what exactly “voice” is and how to understand their own? Forget about it.
You will find myriad definitions of writing style and voice out there. Here’s my definition: Style is the use of language, tone, and punctuation in writing, and voice is how those aspects of style coalesce to create the author’s unique sound. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just be using the term “style” in this article, but know that style and voice are both different and inseparable.
I believe it’s important for a writer to be able to not only describe their own style for networking and marketing purposes, but also so that they can simply wrap their arms and minds around how they write. Knowing your style will enable you to see your manuscript as a puzzle with identifiable pieces rather than as an amorphous work of art that you have no idea how to improve. Understanding your personal identity as a writer is essential to the editing process, whether you hire an editor or edit yourself.
Below are some key aspects of storytelling that work together to form “style.” Consider where you fall on each point and you’ll soon be able to put into words what makes your style, well, yours.
Is your work heavy when it comes to setting details? Do you describe the world in glorious detail, giving its history, popular religions, political atmosphere, and more? Do you describe every bit of physical space your character inhabits? Do you make sure to always note the time of day—maybe even the exact hour—as your story progresses?
Example: Most high fantasy, lots of sci-fi, and nearly all historical fiction, all of which require serious world-building.
Or are your readers more or less shuffling along in the dark, maybe bumping into an essential detail here and there, filling the gaps in the world’s context and physical space with assumptions and their own imagination?
Example: Lots of teen fiction, such as The Fault in Our Stars
Do you have a ton or just a few? Certain genres invite a large cast of characters, such as high fantasy. And some writers just love creating characters so much they pop ‘em out by the dozen. Do you have a huge cast?
Example: Most high fantasy, such as A Game of Thrones
Or do you have just a small, central cast and utilize stock/flat characters when absolutely necessary?
Example: Your hero goes to the gas station and buys cigarettes, but you never give the name of the cashier nor any special description of them at all.
Are you dialogue heavy? Are there pages and pages of single-sentence paragraphs of dialogue? Do you tell every word of every conversation, even just the filler bits?
Example: A lot of teen fiction, such as Twilight.
Or are you less generous with dialogue, dosing it out like icing on a cake—not too much, and only when something really needs to be said?
Or even more extreme, do you have no dialogue at all?
Example: Books written as letters or journal entries often don’t have any dialogue—think The Screwtape Letters.
Do you write in first or third person, generally? What’s your preferred perspective to write from—I went or he/she went? Lots of people find it easier to write in first person, and/or that it makes the story feel more intimate, as if they’re talking directly to the reader.
Example: The Catcher in the Rye
If you write in third person, do you write omniscient or limited? Not sure? Third person omniscient is when the narrator can head hop whenever they please (even several times within a single scene), provide anybody’s backstory at any time, and even divulge information that the characters don’t know themselves. The narrator can choose to take on a persona of his own. Really, almost anything goes in third person omniscient, and folks use this power to varying degrees.
Example: Pride and Prejudice is written in third person omniscient, not limited to Elizabeth as some people tend to think.
Third person limited, on the other hand, typically follows only one character, diving into only her thoughts, emotions, etc., thereby encouraging the reader to primarily bond with her. The narrator doesn’t have a presence.
Example: The Harry Potter series is limited to Harry’s POV.
Or do you really like to challenge yourself and write in second person, as if you’re addressing the reader directly?
Example: All those “choose your own adventure” books or something quirky like The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.
Exposition is the not-so-subtle art of divulging backstory and providing context, or otherwise shoving information plainly at your reader. Do you resort to exposition all the time? In other words, are you telling your reader everything rather than showing them the same information in less obvious ways?
Example of straight exposition: She refused the drink because she was a recovering alcoholic who had been on the wagon for nearly two years.
Or do you deliver exposition less often/with more subtlety?
Example of disguised exposition: She refused the drink, difficult as it was. Even after two years without a taste, the thought of tequila still made her taste buds slick with anticipation.
While tied to “setting,” description goes beyond just the world. It also applies to your characters, their physical actions, etc. For example, if your character is sitting down to a formal dinner, do you describe everything on the table, as well as what everyone is wearing, who they sit by, what their coat of arms has on it, etc.?
Example: Once again, A Game of Thrones
Or do you give the bare minimum, making sure the reader knows when your character is sitting as opposed to standing, and maybe a quick mention of what they’re eating and what the room looks like?
Example: The Hunger Games series
7. Type of Conflict
Do you write more internal or external conflict? Does stuff always happen to your characters?
Example: Your hero is trying to get home, but monsters and bad guys keep getting in the way, such as in The Odyssey.
Or is their struggle primarily internal, less obvious than monsters attacking or saving the planet?
Example: Your mentally ill hero is trying to rebuild his life and decide what his “normal” is going to be, such as in The Silver Linings Playbook.
Or do you make a point to utilize both internal and external conflict?
Example: The Lord of the Rings
Themes can be moral, emotional, political, and more. Some folks seem to write solely for the purpose of delivering a “bigger message” as opposed to entertaining the reader. The message can be the centerpiece of a book, holding it all together, driving the work forward, giving it purpose.
Examples: 1984 and Animal Farm.
On the other hand, some folks just want to tell a fun story that keeps their reader turning pages. If someone finds a deeper, over-arching meaning, great, but that’s not the point. Are you the type who just wants to keep your reader entertained for the simple pleasure of it?
Example: A lot of Stephen King’s stuff, such as Salem’s Lot.
9. Literal vs. Metaphorical Language
Are you literal in your language or do you prefer to utilize metaphor, simile, and the like? Literal means you say it exactly as it happened. Period.
Example of literal language: She’d lived years of her adolescence in total rebellion, drinking and being with older men she had no business being with.
Metaphorical writers, on the other hand, layer metaphor and other figures of speech to say what happened for added depth.
Example of metaphorical language: She’d lived the majority of her adolescence rebelling, as if she were a veteran rock star trapped in a skinny, hormone-riddled frame dotted with acne hidden beneath shovelfuls of makeup. Alcohol was the smack of the ruler she used to make the innocent young girl within herself hush and sit in the corner, older men the faceless princes she used to keep the girl there.
10. Poetic vs. Bare-Bones Language
“Poetic” can mean full of metaphor, but it’s more than that. Think flowery language—meandering vines with delicate flowers, perhaps an occasional thorn.
Example of poetic language: She refused to acknowledge those years, the three years of her adolescence fueled by hormones and Wild Honey Smirnoff. It was in those years that a temporary metamorphosis would take her over, change her into something she’d never really chosen to be. Instead, she’d just slid into it one evening with a musty inhale in a bar on 43rd Street.
Example of bare-bones language: She was ashamed of her rebellious teenage years.
This list is by no means all-inclusive of the aspects that contribute to your personal writing style, but they’re a start to help you see how you write, and therefore, how you might edit your work. I encourage you to play with your style, even try on the styles of other writers, to help you discover your own unique voice. Because nobody else in the world is going to sound exactly like you.