Style is the way in which a writer uses words and other devices right there on the page in front of the reader.
Whereas Ideas, Characters, Attractive Power, Emotional Commitment and even Plot could be described conceptually to some degree apart from the story itself, style is the story itself: it’s what we end up with once all the planning and structure and background development have been done. As this is the aspect of fiction most clearly seen by the reader, and the one in which he or she has the most direct contact, this is the thing upon which the quality of a piece of work is most often judged.
The following questions should help to break this down a little for you.
1. Is your writing style of sufficient quality?
That depends of course on what is meant by the term ‘sufficient’. Style can exist for its own sake. A writer can write in whatever way he or she chooses - poetically, straight-forwardly, mechanistically, aesthetically and any combination of methods. Writers often concentrate on style in order to try to develop a distinctive ‘voice’ so that they will stand out from the crowd.
But is the resulting style attractive to readers? Or does it disinterest or even repel them?
Word by word, sentence by sentence, a writer builds up a body of work. To attract readers, that work must possess certain rhythms and patterns. Without them, while it may read well as an isolated piece of writing, it will not move readers forward or have an emotional effect overall.
2. Do you monitor the quality of your writing in some way?
How is this measured?
It’s relatively easy to see the other mechanisms at work in fiction: the way plots are structured or characters developed, and so forth. Style can be a very subtle thing: its close examination has given rise to almost every school of literary criticism that exists. And yet there are some simple mechanisms that enable anyone interested to forensically inspect what is going on on the page with almost any writer.
3. Do you have a definite style - a way of effectively communicating with readers?
You may feel that you have this under control. Readers pick up a page of your writing and are hooked. Can you sustain that level of writing over a whole piece? Or do you need a better understanding of what it is you’re doing that is working in order to carry on doing it for longer?
4. Do you get many rejections?
Even when a story hangs together structurally, achieves a high level of emotional commitment, has believable characters and is based on good ideas, it can be rejected by editors and readers generally because the thing that they have to ‘wade through’ is the wordage on the page. If you feel that you have everything else in place but are still being rejected, it may be that it is time to look closely at a sentence-by-sentence analysis of your writing. This can be painful to contemplate - style is usually the thing that a writer feels is his or her writing: it is what he or she pours onto the page, part of their heart.
But it may also be his or her worst enemy.
5. Are there often questions from readers about what a particular sentence or section means?
One clue that style may be an underlying problem is if readers ask what something means as they read along. This isn't a case of wanting to know something about a character or the plot, but actually comprehending what a sentence means. Now and again, this is acceptable, but if it is happening frequently then something is wrong.
6. Have you developed a unique writing style?
Similar to # 3 above, you may feel that your writing style is your own and that you don’t want to tamper with it, despite what seem to be negative results. That’s entirely up to you. Perhaps you are ahead of your time. Or perhaps readers are not yet ready to tune in to your wavelength. If you are highly passionate about the way you write, you need to have such a grasp of the other things that make a piece of fiction work that you can compensate radically for this and hook readers in anyway. Powerful ideas, expertly-crafted characters, a host of attractive devices that cultivate masses of emotional appeal, could with a dynamic plot help you to overcome the barrier presented by your style.
7. Is there a way of improving your writing style?
On the other hand, if you are aware that there may be something about your writing style that isn’t working, there are exercises you can do which help to improve it. Contrary to much of what is written out there, style doesn’t just automatically come after thousands upon thousands of words of writing, though they help - it has practical and pragmatic elements which can be worked on too.
8. Do you regularly review your ending to see if changes need to be made?
We’re building up here to looking at the ending of a work of fiction, the moment of Fulfilment which successful works of fiction pull off. If you find yourself tampering with this frequently, you probably need to step back and look not only at style but at your central Ideas.
9. Is there room for improvement?
This is a broader version of # 7, which asked about improvements in writing style specifically. If you are convinced that there is no room for improvement and that you are cruising at the top of your capabilities as a writer, then you can rank yourself accordingly. If, however, you are dissatisfied with any part of your writing process or life, you should reflect on this.
10. Have you reached the top of your game?
Like # 9, reaching the top of your game is something that can only be judged when you are confident that you have a command of the landscape of fiction writing as a whole. If you feel, though, that perhaps there are still further horizons to be explored and that the quality of your work can improve, perhaps in ways that you never imagined, don’t rank yourself right at the top.