Sunday, September 01, 2013

On Writing Style

Hi, I'm Bart Leahy and I'm a writer ("Hi, Bart!"). Tonight I thought I'd take a shot at writing about writing style and what it is. You might find this useful, you might not. If you don't find these thoughts applicable to you, you'll at least understand better what my style is and where it comes from. Read as you see fit.

Primary Influences
Everyone starts writing by reading, and we all have our favorites. My favorite writers were and are science fiction writers. Below is a short list, just to give you an understanding of where I started:

Arthur C. Clarke
Isaac Asimov
Larry Niven
Jerry Pournelle
Frank Herbert
Robert A. Heinlein
Ayn Rand
Poul Anderson
Kim Stanley Robinson
Ray Bradbury

Throw in a little Ernest Hemingway, and you have a general idea of where my notions of fiction writing came from. Of course that is only half the picture. My day job since 1996 has been business writing. I have worked for the Walt Disney Company (Walt Disney World Resort), a couple of defense contractors, a couple of NASA contractors, and a small space/technology business. When I got my B.A. in English Lit., I was taught to write in a scholarly manner. I also picked up a love of Shakespeare and Milton. In my post-college life, I've absorbed a lot of philosophy, history, and business theory books. Reading and writing in these various environments has shaped the type of writing I am likely to do, and consciously or not, I have copied the styles of these various individuals over the years in ways that suited me.

Impacts of My Primary Influences
So while I had hopes of writing the Great American Science Fiction Novel, much of my style has been influenced by the need to communicate with customers of various sorts. Science fiction writing walks a fine line between introducing the reader to unfamiliar, often strange concepts, characters, and environments and making things as clear as possible. Of course some SF authors also like to make things arty in their own style, which makes the GASF novel especially difficult to write. Note that I do not make my living that way.

Business writing--in my experience--includes technical papers, training materials, business proposals, correspondence, policies, and marketing materials. Depending on the business, the styles can range from formal (say, if you're writing to a United States Senator) to casual (if I'm writing outreach materials for the Science Cheerleaders). Regardless of the audience, I usually order my words in the most direct way possible, using the fewest words and the simplest construction possible. The reason for this is simple: I'm trying to help my organization get the result they want, and only that result.

Just as an example, I never realized how complicated it was to write contest rules until I started getting random, weird questions from people. If you want to know why contracts (written in "Lawyerese") are so complicated, it's because different people interpret rules in different ways. Tell people "You may submit more than one entry" leads to questions such as, "Is there a limit to the number of entries I submit?" or "Can I submit joint entries with another person?" Seriously. Anyhow, the point of most business writing--ideally, not always, always--is to eliminate ambiguity. Since I'm a pretty literal guy anyway (ask my mom about the time she asked me to "jump in the tub" as a kid once).

But that requirement for directness and clarity means that I stumble when it comes to subtlety or symbolism. I had been a business technical writer for several years when I was required to take a postmodern criticism class in grad school. To say that I had problems with that class is putting it mildly. It's also difficult to write "deep" fiction if you're used to laying out everything in clear, so-dumb-a-12-year-old-could-understand-it language and thought patterns.

Style in its Natural Environment
Of course I also have a journal, which I've kept for 25 years. That is where my style has truly grown and developed because that is where I'm simply talking to myself in the words I know and use best. I'm aware that at some point someone besides me might read said journal (a collection of notebooks now filling three cardboard boxes in the deepest recesses of a closet in an undisclosed location somewhere). But on the whole, my journal is for me, and that's as good a place as any to start developing a consistent method for putting words on paper. Journal writing is for you. It's writing without artifice--unless of course you like talking to or about yourself in the third person, in symbols, or allegorically.

My blog style is close to my journal style, albeit a bit less personal (what, you think I'm nutty enough to share all of my deepest, most personal thoughts here?). There are no doubt certain stylistic "tics" that the regular reader will have noticed by now:
  • A fondness for parentheses and long dashes, mostly because I find myself thinking about other things in the midst of some specific thing.
  • Bullets. It's a technical writer thing.
  • In my fiction, I often will write in third-person limited or omniscient so I can capture character thoughts in italics. That's a Frank Herbert thing.
  • I write the way I speak or a little better. The "or better" means I don't cuss quite as often when I write. 
  • My specific areas of discussion: science fiction, philosophy, history, politics, space exploration, tourism, training, leadership, travel, and general culture. These are my interests, so they inevitably find their way into my writing. 
You might detect other little mannerisms that set aside "Bartish" writing from others' (if so, I'd be curious to know what you think they are). Regardless, my way of doing things with pen and paper or in front of a keyboard are uniquely my own and are born out of years of work- and non-work writing. I love expressing my thoughts in text--or others' thoughts.

Why Care About Style?
The reason "style" matters is simply that it's part of how we express our individuality. If I continued to stumble along, trying to ape Hemingway or Bradbury, people would eventually come along and say, "Dude, you really need to develop your own style. We're not writing The Martian Chronicles here."

Plus, while it might seem counterintuitive, you need to know how you write so that you can better adapt to other styles. You develop your own style simply through practice and using the language. If you want specific guidance on how to clear up grammatical errors and improve your writing flow, I highly recommend Joseph M. Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace and William Strunk or E.B. White's Elements of Style, preferably one of the earlier editions, before political correctness and postmodernism started making writing overly complicated again.

Regardless of where you get your advice on writing, eventually you must learn to find your own voice, especially if you're going to make a living at it. I'm convinced that a lot of people in the business world "hate writing" because they've convinced themselves that they have to write the way Professor So-and-so did, which was in Academese and awful or in Lawyerese, and thus awful in a different way. Don't worry about them--I get paid to edit business writing. But if you're an aspiring fiction or freelance writer, you absolutely must develop your own way of speaking to the world.

1 comment:

lin said...

Kudos for recommending Ten Lessons and Elements to aspiring and practicing writers; those books should be required reading for all high school English students. Anyone who attempts to write professionally without thoroughly adopting the knowledge and wisdom of Williams, Strunk, and White should have his mouse neutered.