Cultivating Style

Reading rubs off on writers—we naturally imitate other writers who inspire us. This can sometimes be unconscious. When I read, say, David Foster Wallace, I notice that my writing becomes discursive and I try to emulsify a virtuosic vocabulary with an idiomatic, compassionate prose. When I switch to Joan Didion, my writing takes on a painstakingly crafted deliberateness, a quiet but commanding lyricism.

This is not as schizophrenic as it seems. Confronted with the unique styles of these word-wielders, the impulse to “be cool” by mimicry evokes the déjà vu of high school, when a person might pretend to be a lot of things to fit in with a crowd. But the question then becomes: how do you cultivate your style—a style that isn’t just the collage of all the writers you’ve admired—and where does that style come from in the first place?

Style is intensely personal. As self-aware as we may be, style is something that always evades and overrides the logic of self-analysis. There’s a naturalness to style that makes it something we not only create but also something we uncover. It’s something inextricable from the inner things you’re trying to communicate across the page—in other words, style isn’t just about the words, but how those words tell stories, criticize, catalog, etc.

Read, read, and read some more to develop an ear for what works—and what you like—aurally. Once you begin to hear your thoughts and be able to consciously transcribe them with the rhythm and cadences that make it ring true to the emotions they’re trying to convey, you’re well on your way to honing a voice that pays homage to your favorite writers, but is inimitably, incontrovertibly your own.

Write, write, and write some more. Take a summary of any story you haven’t read and write it your own way—then read the original. Compare styles. Rewrite paragraphs you come across in books that you don’t like and want to improve. Write in as many genres as you can, for the fun of it. Notice not only what you like, but patterns in your writing that stem from habit or aesthetic, and consciously work with them.

What is your writing style, and what are ways you cultivate it?


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