Breaking Out of a Stylistic Rut (Or Finding One)

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As a writer, “style” is a thing we’re supposed to find. It will define us, they say; set us apart as a distinct, creative voice in a vast field of creative voices. It’s our brand. It’s the thingour “signature”—that marks each of our stories or novels as uniquely ours no matter how different in subject matter each work may be.

Literary masters are known as much for their individual styles as they are for their big ideas or themes. According to the New York Times Ernest Hemingway writes, “lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.” The Quill and Quire proclaims Margaret Atwood‘s work to be, “unadorned, sardonic, [and] plainspoken.” Neil Gaiman‘s style is, “rich in nightmarish imagery and ironic wit,” according to sfreviews.net. These writers serve as style benchmarks, against which other writers are compared and judged.

While most of us will never achieve such heights, it seems developing a style is necessary. But, it seems to me, this quest is fraught with potential difficulties.

First of all, finding a style is, well, hard. As newer writers we struggle with this, often falling back on clichéd or generic language and imagery, because that’s what comes easiest. My early writing (and, let’s be honest, some of my current writing), features its fair share of fluttering hearts, unnamed inns or pubs in unnamed towns or cities, piercing blue eyes, eleven archers, whole strings of sentences starting with “he” or “she” or “the” etc.

That said, the early days can also be a time of heady experimentation. A literary story written in first person, present-tense might be followed by a high fantasy story in distant third person. We write flash pieces, and novellas, and portions of novels. We’re not yet constrained by our style, because we don’t have one.

Once we move beyond this stage, into what might be considered a “style” of our own, other problems can arise. Maybe all of our writing sounds the same—and not in a good way. Maybe it’s not as distinct as we’d like, reading as a pale imitation as an author we admire, or as only competent but lacking in pizzaz. Maybe we start all of our sentences the same way, and repeat the same sentence structure over and over. All of this can be a “style,” and if it’s working—great!—but it can also become a trap.

So, whether you’re working to find a style, or feel stuck in a rut, I offer a few exercises below that I hope help you to make a breakthrough.

Exercise 1:

We all have habitual ways of constructing sentences and paragraphs, and it can be tough to get away from this. Sometimes our critiquers will even notice and comment on our patterns: “Twelve paragraphs in a row start with ‘he’!” Ideally readers should not notice our sentence structure, unless it is to admire an especially well-crafted sentence (but even then…we want them rooted in the story, not focusing on our prose).

One of my creative writing instructors suggested the following exercise, which I found helpful: jot down sentences from authors you admire—preferably sentences you could never see yourself writing—then write a sentence emulating the structure and perhaps tone of the original sentence. If your sentence is relevant to a work-in-progress—even better! It’s not that we should try to just copy our favorite author’s style, because this won’t work and is not exactly a desirable goal. But sometimes the mere act of forcing ourselves outside of our comfort zones can open up new possibilities in our own writing.

Here are some sample sentences to try: (If I were braver I would have recorded my attempts. But…not brave.)

“That was the camp all right and it was a good camp.” Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

“There was no wind, and, outside now of the warm air of the cave, heavy with smoke of both tobacco and charcoal, with the odor of cooked rice and meat, saffron, pimentos, and oil, the tarry, wine-spilled smell of the big skin hung beside the door, hung by the neck and the four legs extended, wine drawn from a plug fitted in one leg, wine that spilled a little onto the earth of the floor, settling the dust smell; out now from the odors of different herbs whose names he did not know that hung in bunches from the ceiling, with long ropes of garlic, away now from the copper-penny, red wine and garlic, horse sweat and man sweat dried in the clothing (acrid and gray the man sweat, sweet and sickly the dried brushed-off lather of horse sweat), of the men at the table, that smelled of the pines and of the dew on the grass in the meadow by the stream.” Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

“Like the flag of an unknown country, seen for an instant above a curve of hill, it could mean attack, it could mean parley, it could mean the edge of something, a territory.” Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

“To be a man, watched by women.” Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

“Kansas was the cheerless gray of lonesome clouds, empty windows, and lost hearts.” Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“He had had such a strange dream, of prisons and con men and down-at-heel gods, and now Laura was waking him to tell him it was time for work, and perhaps there would be time enough before work to steal some coffee and a kiss, or more than a kiss; and he put out his hand to touch her.” Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Exercise 2:

Make a list of non-dialogue sentence starters and refer to it while writing. You may never start a sentence with “just” or with a noun, for example, but give it a try. Why not? The way you begin a sentence will alter its structure and give a different feel to your writing.

My non-exhaustive list:*
[Proper name: e.g. Mary, Paul]
[Regular noun: e.g. Life, Death, Cabbages]
[Adjective: e.g. Three, Hot]
[Adverb: e.g. Soundlessly, Listlessly]
He/she
I
We
They
Their
Our
My
The
A
To
It
If
And
In
So
Who
What
Where
When
Why
Are
Do
Just
One
Once
Several
Never
Always
There
Another
Between
Not
No
That
Now
Everything
Nothing
Like
Unlike
Only
With
During
All
Rather
After
Yet
Because
Still
As
Until
Ahead
From
Possibly
Impossibly

Exercise 3:

Try writing a paragraph or story in a style different from what you typically write, using the appropriate tone, language, and imagery. If you normally write flowery high fantasy, for example, try writing a hard-boiled, noir detective, or factual science fiction piece. You may discover a hidden talent, or at least a sense of freedom and fun. Writing in an unfamiliar style can force us to think harder about voice, and sometimes this leads to a stronger story.

Do you have thoughts on style? Other exercises or tools to try? I’d love to hear from you.

* As this post is about style and not grammar or “writing rules,” I will make no comment on the wisdom of starting a sentence with these words. Any of them can work, if handled well. And, if not, well…that’s what editing is for.

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  • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

    Patrick, my patient editor, described some of my stylistic quirks as “The two women” problem.

    • Erika Holt

      What does that even mean? :)

      • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

        That I keep using the same phrase.

        In reading stuff he had been reading for a writing group, one gent apparently uses this phrase to excess in every single piece he does.

        He has pointed out in editing my work I have my own “Two women” problems.

        • Erika Holt

          Hee hee. :)

  • galen dara

    erika! these are fabulous exercises, I can’t wait to try them out. thank you :)

    • Erika Holt

      Yay! You’re welcome!

  • http://www.writerightwords.com/ Erin Feldman

    One of my poetry professors had us write a “wild poem” in our writing workshop, which is similar to the third exercise. The goal was to write as opposite of ourselves as possible, and the exercise usually was preceded by reading a poet who wrote in that “wild” manner.

    • Erika Holt

      Great suggestion! And poetry, too! I find poetry tough, which probably means I should try my hand at it more often. :)

  • Tracie W.

    This is heartening! I feel intimidated sometimes by certain styles, and I tell myself, “oh, I just don’t like horror” (for instance). As I work on my current project, I find myself going to other works and examining style and structure, economy of language, and I’m finding it a helpful approach. Pushing ourselves to experiment can only help us grow.

    Atwood is a superb example of clean, tight prose (The Blind Assassin is remarkable, as is Oryx and Crake), and for flowing and descriptive, I can’t get enough of Ian McDonald’s work.

    • Erika Holt

      Yeah, we can learn a lot from studying the work of other authors, I think–thanks for the suggestion! I haven’t read any Ian McDonald. :)