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‘Know the rules… but there are exceptions to everything’

Establishing your writing style


from Write Short Stories and Get Them Published by Zoë Fairbairns


Like other kinds of style (your hairstyle, your style of dress, your way of decorating and furnishing your home), your writing style will emerge from a mixture of rules, conventions, practicalities and personal choices.


As a creative writer, you will want to be original, and true to your own voice and perceptions. But your style will also be influenced by your knowledge of standard English – defined by David Marsh in For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection (Guardian/Faber) as ‘the variety of English used formally in such areas as education, politics, law, literature, the media and science’. Equally important is your awareness that neither you nor anyone else speaks or writes in perfect Standard English at all times. Your background and origins will influence your style, as will the background and origins of the fictional characters you create for your stories. A specialist talking to or writing for fellow specialists will use a style that is different from the one they use for lay people.


Numerous websites offer to teach you grammar and style: as with dictionaries, go for the ones that come from reliable sources, such as universities and reputable publishers. In the meantime, here are some general principles.


Use the smallest number of words possible to tell your story to its intended audience. Or, as the American authors of The Elements of Style (Longman), William Strunk and E.B. White, put it: ‘Omit needless words.’


Short, sharp sentences are preferable to strings of clauses linked by ‘and’ or (worse) commas. But see the next point.


Never say never. If someone tells you ‘never’ to use adverbs or passive verbs, ‘never’ to split an infinitive or end a sentence on a preposition, or ‘never’ to write long strings of clauses, treat this advice with caution. It is one thing for a magazine or newspaper to have a house style on such matters; that is important for the consistency and appearance of the publication and its brand identity. But you are not a brand, you are an individual writer trying to find and establish your voice. If someone else’s style guide tells you ‘never’ to do this, that or the other, examine the reasons for the ban. If they make sense to you, then by all means keep your use of whatever has been forbidden to a minimum. But don’t rule it out altogether. There are exceptions to everything.


When you are writing direct dialogue, you can of course allow your characters to make grammatical mistakes in the way they speak. In fact, you probably should, to make them sound fallible like the rest of us. (For more on this, see Chapter 11.)


Be hospitable to your reader. Welcome them into the world that you are creating with your writing. Unless your content demands otherwise, tell them what they need to know when they need to know it. Be clear. When you change the subject, indicate this with a new sentence or a new paragraph.


Use figurative language by all means, but make sure it does its job of creating a telling image in the reader’s mind, rather than making things vague, abstract, noncommittal or simply ridiculous. Don’t mix metaphors.


Avoid jargon unless its use is a feature of one of your characters. If you use acronyms, abbreviations and initials, and they are important to the story, make sure your reader knows what they stand for.


Many people whose day-to-day speech is clear and eloquent become complex, convoluted and pretentious on the page. Avoid this – trust your own voice. Don’t strive to sound literary. Concentrate on being precise, and let ‘literary’ take care of itself. Keep asking yourself: what exactly do I mean? If you are having difficulty getting something down on the page, stop struggling and say it out loud. Then write what you said.


When using a pronoun, always be clear which noun it refers to. The following report during an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease must have caused some consternation: ‘On Monday, the first signs of the disease were identified in the sheep. On Tuesday, the Ministry vets arrived. On Wednesday they were all culled.’


Be consistent. Tea pot, tea-pot or teapot? It doesn’t matter. But make sure it is the same throughout the story – unless something in your plot requires that it be varied.


Be sparing in your use of the exclamation mark! It is a nudge in the direction of being surprised, alarmed or amused by something; a dig in the ribs, a typographical ‘Geddit?’ As such it can be intrusive, defensive or downright embarrassing, particularly when it is used to signify a joke but the joke isn’t funny. Far better to let your words be surprising, alarming or amusing on their own.


Familiarize yourself with the work of the Plain English Campaign, which campaigns against ‘gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information’. The campaign and its advice are aimed more at business and government than at creative writers – you probably won’t want your stories to sound like an instruction booklet for a washing machine or a guide to pension entitlement, however well these may be written. But anyone who wants to use English effectively would do well to heed the Plain English Campaign’s advice and keep an eye on their website and publications.