When I first approached the topic of this post, I was deeply intimidated. There is no facet of creative writing that could render me more self-conscious, that I devote half so much mental and emotional energy to, than prose. Every writer, published or not, has started reading a book and immediately thought “Oh no. This is better than anything I will ever write.” I can think of multiple novels that left me so starstruck, so daunted, that I had to close them and return when I was better braced for what I was getting myself into. This is not a feeling I expect will ever alleviate, no matter how far into my career I progress. If prose were ice cream, I could spend my life perfecting the tastiest strawberry in the world, and be damn proud of it. And then one day I sample an excellent pistachio, and all my confidence melts.
But this is not a post about how style is hard. This is a how-to post, and so I’m going to give it my best shot.
As a disclaimer, I reject the notion that prose / style / writerly voice is an entirely inate skill that you have no control over. I enjoy deep dive discussions about art and creative identity as much as the next writer, but that particular sentiment has always struck me as elitist. Plus, I’m far too deliberate of a person to entrust a matter I care so much about to something as flimsy as my own natural talent.
Suggestion #1: Identify your stylistic goals for the project you’re working on
A lot of advice will urge you to experiment with a variety of different styles via short stories, or some other briefer medium, until you feel you’ve found your own artistic footing. And I’m not trying to dissuade you from that—I’ve followed this advice myself, during the creative writing courses I took in college.
However, the reality is that style can be a bit of a chameleon. Sure, there will be elements you carry with you from project to project (I can identify my personal stylistic stamp on all my books, whether they’re MG, YA, or adult), but the truth is that every project is different. And rather than stress about boiling your entire identity down to your utilization of this metaphorical technique or that structural cadence, focus on what your book needs. What type of voice would truly enhance the story you’re telling?
Suggestion #2: Read books with good prose
And pay attention. Take notes. Look for the choices the author made within the text, the length of their sentences, the words they selected, the flow they created. “How did they do this?” can often feel like a loaded, overwhelming question. It’s far more productive to ask yourself “Why did they do this?” and then attempt to answer it.
My preferred method to study the craft of my favorite authors is to transpose passages into a Scrivener file. There is something about transporting the words into the software, the font, and the formatting I use to write. It strips the prose of all the formality of paper and ink. And it lets me consider the author’s choices as though they were truly my own. I have a entire Scrivener file of these scraps, organized by “introductions,” “resolutions,” “action scenes,” “romance scenes”—whatever I might wish to refer back to when I need some inspiration.
And when you notice a pattern or a technique in their writing that you like, notate it. Explain it to yourself. Teach yourself how it works and how to master it. Effectively, steal it 🙂
Suggestion #3: Make the mountain smaller
It’s the unfortunate nature of writing that we can never examine our entire project at once, at a bird’s eye view. This can engender a lot of anxiety, can make the notion of it feel overwhelming.
My best advice is to break your writing down piece by piece. Rather than fixating on the prose of a whole chapter, focus on a single page. Make that page the best that you can. Edit your book page-by-page, bit-by-bit, as though you’re clearing each one from a checklist. As I edit, I often assign a grade to each of my scenes regarding how I feel about them. This isn’t to punish myself. It helps me retain a sense of control so that, when that inevitable insecurity strikes and I panic about the entire novel, I can zero in on the exact passages I didn’t find quite as up to snuff.
“This book can’t be complete garbage,” I’d tell myself. “I gave all three of my opening chapters an A+!”
Step Four: Write yourself a style guide
I adore writing beginnings. I love them so much that they’re an essential ingredient in my brainstorming process. As soon as my idea has gained some sort of substance, I take it to a blank page. The first page. And I let the words flow until I lose steam—usually after 200-500 or so. And even though those snippets still face the same unavoidable pitfalls of any first draft, they always manage to retain a certain sparkle. Over the course of revising, I often return to those earliest pages, the original blueprint from which I engineered the whole story’s voice, and identify which of its aspects make it shine. Then I keep it on hand as I revise my trickier scenes, as though it is my own personal style guide to consult.
Whether or not you like beginnings, this technique is definitely something you can do yourself. Open your project and select your favorite scene, the one with the prose you’re proudest of, the one that you feel captures the very heart of your story. And study the hell out of it. Even if your stylistic choices were unconscious ones, determine what they were, so that you can learn how to replicate them.
In conclusion, the craft of prose does not have to be a subject of smoke and mirrors. But it is a subjective topic, one that faces the whims of each individual’s taste, as well as the unique priorities of every project. As such, there’s no cut and dry answer on what good writing looks like. But that doesn’t mean it has to feel outside of your control.
And when it does feel that way, when you do read that book that you admire so much it makes you despair, remember that natural talent is a lot of pee pee poo poo, and you can grab your highlighters, your notebooks, or your Scrivener documents, and you can get to work.