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Writing syle ... exactly what is it?

Your writing style is your unique writer's voice -- and flaws here are the hardest things of all to find and correct, because these are most often "spoken language" traits, "habits of speech." They pass over into the written word, where they don't belong, and where they glare off the page sounding clumsy, awkward, or just plain weird.

There is no five-minute fix for this point of copy editing, but many years ago a slim little book was written, Elements of Style. In 1918, William Strunk Jr., an English professor, attempted to touch down on every essential element and explain it with examples. In the following 90 years, the work has been revised several times; it was released into the public domain in 1995, and at the time of this writing you can buy it on paper (Macmillan, New York), or download it as an ebook.

Stay on this page, and a little further down, we'll lift the cover and take a peek into Strunk's slim volume.

Some errors of style are colloquialisms, or regionalisms — slang terms from a geographical area which don't mean much, a hundred miles away. For instance:

A "buttie" and a "sarnie" are the same thing. A sandwich. But only in the UK. "Miffed" means annoyed, so long as you're in the US. "Chuntering" is a cross between grumbling and chattering ... in the UK. "Chooks and snags and keks" are chickens and sausages and eggs ... so long as you're in Australia. "Pollies" could be parrots or politicians, depending on where you are. "Singlets and beanies" are undershirts and woollen hats ... in Australia. "Sourdoughs and Cheechakos" are terms making perfect sense, in Alaska! "Pootling" is a verb meaning "to drive slowly" or wander about at leisure ... in London.

So, watch out for colloquialisms and regionalisms in your narrative. You can use them in dialog, where they're important in the development of your character's unique voice. So long as the meaning is either contextually clear, or you make it clear, this is the place to use colloquialisms. It's when they escape into the narrative that the problem begins!

However, most errors of style that come out at the copy editing stage are speech patterns which don't work on paper. A good example of this is the passive voice. In speech, you can get away with using the passive voice; it sounds absolutely normal: "Insufficient time is being spent on the problem," is perfectly normal in speech.

However, agents, editors and publishers want the active voice, virtually to the exclusion of all else. In the active voice you would say, "The problem is being neglected."

Look at these examples of active and passive; sort them out and see the way to navigate through these rapids:

The river was being progressively polluted by farming along both banks.
Farmer along both banks of the river were progressively polluting it.

The little boy was brought to school by his father.
The man brought his little boy to school.

The book had been read by a thousand students.
A thousand students had read the book.

The intruder was mauled by three guard dogs.
Three guard dogs mauled the intruder.

Maureen was made a fool of by Uncle Arthur.
Uncle Arthur made a fool of Maureen.

Here's the trick: look for the verb. (Above, the verbs are bring read, maul, make, and "progressively pollute.") Look for who performs the verb. Reword the sentence to make sure that the subject is actually performing the verb:

Passive: The cat was rescued by two young girls.
Verb: rescue.
The girls performed the rescue, not the cat!
The verb was performed ON the cat -- he was rescued!
Active: Two young girls rescued the cat.

Editors are quite strict about this point. It's usually active voice or the rejection pile.

Watch out particularly for catch phrases. For instance, "A fine performance was given by all concerned," sounds fine in your ear, but on paper, editors want to see the active voice: "All concerned delivered fine performances."

Copy editing is the time to be thorough, and meticulous ... and to know the rules.

Another excellent example of an error of style is to overindulge in "wordiness." When we're speaking, our speech patterns govern how we talk, describe things, relate other conversations, and, again, we can get away with almost anything. However, in text, wordiness soon becomes apparent. Your copy editing will be an interesting experience for some time, as you discover how to weed passages like this:

    I was told by one of the teachers that Roger is a much better than average student with a fairly good attitude toward the other children in the class, and, in reality, the only area in which his behavior is below-par would have to be his hobby, which — it would be absolutely accurate to say — is inclined to make rather a mess.

Try this:

    Roger's teacher says he is a good student who responds well to classmates, though his hobby makes a mess.

The simplest rule is: never use five words to say what you can say in three! (Editors and agents can spot this at a glance, and they will know (or think) your work is padded out to make a short story much longer. Some magazines pay by the word, and even though its only 3c or 5c per word, if you can sprawl the story out over an extra thousand words, you just picked up another fifty dollars! Expect strict editing from magazines that pay by the word, for obvious reasons.)

Literally hundreds of bad speech habits shadow every word we speak aloud, and none of them matters because the spoken word vanishes into the ether. The trouble starts when they're written down. They come back to haunt us. For this reason, political speeches are written long ahead of time, by professional speech writers!

Having said all this, it is also very important to find your own unique "voice" as a writer, and hang onto it. If 250 different writers were to obey every rule of the little book Elements of Style, they would sound almost identical.

This might be fine for academic writing -- but not for fiction, where it's a writer's unique treatment of words, sentences, dialog, narrative, discription, that go together to make successful fiction happen. We don't want or need romances, westerns, historicals and science fiction to all sound alike!

Copy editing is a process in which you must use your judgement. Don't get so wordy that editors and agents constantly reject you ... at the same time, don't let adherence to the Elements of Style strangle out either your voice or your creativity.

At times in this area of copy editing, it will be as if you're walking on a tightrope. When you begin to feel overwhelmed, STOP. Instead of editing yourself to death, or rewriting for the tenth time, go for a walk. Put on some music. Make coffee (apple tea will also get your brain going). Put your feet up. Pick up a couple of dozen books by other writers, in your genre, if you're writing in a niche. READ. See how other writers express themselves by flipping through the books and touching down on a paragraph here and there. You're not looking at the story or the character development, or the descriptive narrative. You're looking at the flow of words.

And some of the time, you're going to see thoroughly sloppy writing. Best-selling writers are allowed to break the rules. When you're breaking into the industry at the bottom, you have to know what the rules are, and play by them. However, if you pick up a dozen books and read a few pages here and there, you'll see some extremely good writing, as well as dross.

Be analytical. Try to key, or focus, on what these writers are doing that works, and works well. See if you can get into the habit of writing concisely. If not, fall back on copy editing to prune, or weed, sentences which are too wordy. The more you do this, the easier it will become. Eventually, you'll be able to do it without even thinking about it.

Errors in style ... the Elements of Style ... is an absolutely vast subject. An in-depth study would take a whole book, and indeed, entire books have been devoted to this topic. Copy editing, as a job, involves knowing most of the rules and making personal judgements: where do you conform to the rulebook? Where do you diverge, to protect your unique writing style?

William Strunk Jr.'s Elements of Style is the skinny volume we recommend. In the space of around 110pp, he looks are every imaginable awkward use of the language and, through the means of examples, smooths out the wrinkles.

Here's an example:

    Keep related words together.

    The position of the words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. The writer must therefore, so far as possible, bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.

    The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.

    Wordsworth, in the fifth book of The Excursion, gives a minute description of this church.

    In the fifth book of The Excursion, Wordsworth gives a minute description of this church.

    Cast iron, when treated in a Bessemer converter, is changed into steel.

    By treatment in a Bessemer converter, cast iron is changed into steel.

    The objection is that the interposed phrase or clause needlessly interrupts the natural order of the main clause. This objection, however, does not usually hold when the order is interrupted only by a relative clause or by an expression in apposition. Nor does it hold in periodic sentences in which the interruption is a deliberately used means of creating suspense (see examples under Rule 18).

    The relative pronoun should come, as a rule, immediately after its antecedent.

    There was a look in his eye that boded mischief.

    In his eye was a look that boded mischief.

    He wrote three articles about his adventures in Spain, which were published in Harper's Magazine.

    He published in Harper's Magazine three articles about his adventures in Spain.

    This is a portrait of Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, who became President in 1889.

    This is a portrait of Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison. He became President in 1889.

    If the antecedent consists of a group of words, the relative comes at the end of the group, unless this would cause ambiguity.

    A proposal to amend the Sherman Act, which has been variously judged

    A proposal, which has been variously judged, to amend the Sherman Act

    The grandson of William Henry Harrison, who

    William Henry Harrison's grandson, Benjamin Harrison, who

    Modifiers should come, if possible next to the word they modify. If several expressions modify the same word, they should be so arranged that no wrong relation is suggested.

    All the members were not present.

    Not all the members were present.

    He only found two mistakes.

    He found only two mistakes.

    Major R. E. Joyce will give a lecture on Tuesday evening in Bailey Hall, to which the public is invited, on "My Experiences in Mesopotamia" at eight P. M.

    On Tuesday evening at eight P. M., Major R. E. Joyce will give in Bailey Hall a lecture on "My Experiences in Mesopotamia." The public is invited.

...and so on! The book is very "dense," meaning Strunk doesn't waffle on. He jumps directly from one sin to another, deals with each in a minimum of words and proceeds to the next. The book is invaluable if you're still in the stage where you're learning to analyze the language ... perhaps trying to figure our which combination of words is actually correct. If you're "playing by ear," this is the book for you.

You can actually download it: Click here to do just that! However, a book is so nice to have on the shelf, and you can also order it from, using the button to your left.

If Elements of Style sounds too dense -- too hard -- then by all means stay on this blog and check out a number of other posts. We're covering the same ground, but we're doing it with a coffee in one hand and a cookie in the other...!

Here are some more posts which will help you work out what Style is all about, and get it under control:

Being wordy: how much is too much?!

Is B following A, and Z following Y ...?! Are you sure?!

Is there an echo in here?!

Writing with consistency

Writing with absolute clarity

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