Style is one of those things everybody wants but no one can quite define. Fred Astaire had style. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had style. Ernest Hemingway had a style that today is imitated to the point of parody. Among nonfiction writers, Tom Wolfe certainly had a distinctive style in his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test days, and Hunter S. Thompson created his own “gonzo” style in his arguably nonfictional Fear and Loathing books. But some of the most admired nonfiction writers think of last year’s Pulitzer winner, John McPhee, or New Yorker profile master Mark Singer have no readily identifiable style, or their style is so understated and in the background as to seem like no style at all.
So what is style, anyway, and do you need it as a nonfiction writer? If you need it, how do you get it? Or is it just something you’re born with, like Fred Astaire and Jackie Kennedy?
You might think of style as your signature, the aspect of your writing that marks it as unmistakably yours like Astaire’s top hat and tails, Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats, or Hemingway’s stoic, barebones rhythms. You can’t read a paragraph by Tom Wolfe in his “New Journalism” prime and imagine it being written by anyone else. The signature of quieter, less flamboyant stylists the McPhees and Singers is less in-your-face, but a student of their writing could soon learn to spot it in their use of language, their evocation of detail, their sense of place.
But most editors aren’t looking for style when they assign an article or jump on a book proposal, at least not consciously. Indeed, an editor might notice an excess of “style” if your writing is so distinctive that it’s jarring with the overall feel of a magazine or publishing program and react negatively. Even a desirable style, if too strongly expressed, might prove a hindrance in some markets: You didn’t see the dapper Astaire in many westerns or horror movies, after all.
So it’s best to let your writing style find you, to let it evolve out of your innate personality and abilities, rather than to seek out a strong style to impose on your writing. Don’t try to be Hemingway, for example, unless you’re interested in parody. Don’t set out to become the next Tom Wolfe, supercharging your writing with The Right Stuff to the point where it sounds forced and false.
Finding your unique voice
What are the elements of a natural style, the aspects to foster in your writing so that some day you’ll have your own unique, but not artificial or overwhelming, signature?
Style comes from the rhythm of your words, of course again, consider Hemingway or Wolfe. And style demands that your writing have unity, the sense that it all hangs together, that it’s all of a piece, that there’s an author in charge here.
But at its most obvious, basic level, style springs from tone and voice. These terms get so intertwined in practice that they’re almost interchangeable. But let’s think of voice as the sense of who’s “talking” in a piece of writing, and tone as the way he or she talks to readers. These are admittedly fuzzy concepts, and whenever you wade into metaphorical discussions of writing, you get into deep water mighty fast. Still, let’s put on our water wings and see where this takes us.
Your voice as a writer is the authorial personality you assume. You put on different roles throughout your day, as the occasion demands: parent, boss, employee, friend, lover. Who are you when you’re writing an article? Some writers choose to play the savvy insider, the tout; others put on the mantle of teacher, instructing readers almost as though in a classroom; still others step up on a soapbox, wagging an authorial finger as they make their points (this last voice is one I don’t recommend for most occasions). Maybe you’re a bit of a wise guy when you write. Or perhaps you’re a kindly grandparent (whatever your actual age and family status), patiently explaining things to a younger generation that could learn a lot from you if they listen.
There’s no right or wrong here (though you might want to think twice before opting for the persona of “abrasive, know-it-all jerk”). Some voices are better for some assignments, and your voice, if too unusual, may simply not fit some editors’ needs. But do take a moment to ponder who you are when you’re writing and what your imagined relationship is to your audience.
At the online city guide I once edited, for example, we aimed for the voice of the audience’s friend a slightly hipper, better-informed friend who knew the best new restaurants and the hottest night spots, sure, but a friend just the same. The sort of friend you wish you had, but probably don’t. That voice was essential to our style. So I’d write this way in starting a restaurant review: “If you’re looking for an escape from the antiquing-and-giftables bustle of downtown Stillwater, try climbing the back stairs of the Grand Garage, following the arrows or your nose, drawn by wafts of woodsmoke to Coupe deGrille.” I assumed that you already knew the historic, weekend-getaway town of Stillwater hey, you’re my friend, and so you must be pretty with-it and that you’d be looking for an escape from the crowds. As your trend-spotting pal, I’m happy to be able to share my latest discovery with you.
If instead I’d opted for the voice of an experienced gastronome a food snob I would have opened that review completely differently: “Though hardly up to the dining standards of such nearby culinary havens as the Lowell Inn, the Coupe deGrille in Stillwater nonetheless manages to achieve a passable level of American cuisine, distinguished by its smoked meats…” Here I’m not only putting on a different persona, but making different assumptions about my readers’ needs and interests as a result.
Paying attention to tone
The tone of those two examples differs too, of course. Tone encompasses word choice, sentence structure, even grammatical and punctuation issues. The tone must match your voice and your imagined audience: A teacher wouldn’t lace his lecture with hip-hop slang, and your friend wouldn’t use a vocabulary more suited to scholarly journals than to casual conversation.
Here, my original, friendly version used a tone I often describe as “breezy.” I employed contractions, addressed readers as “you,” detoured into light little asides (“or your nose”), and freely coined words and slung slang (“giftables”). By contrast, the food-snob version eschews contractions, kicks the vocabulary up a notch, and piles on the clauses.
Your tone might be arch or awestruck, casual or snooty, excited or weighted with ennui. You might adopt the tone of a dispassionate observer, or you might come across as intimately engaged with your subject. You can change your tone to suit your writing project, but never try on a tone that’s not really you. If you’re not a food snob at heart, trying to write a restaurant review as though you are will sound phony and contrived. Or, if you’re a serious sort of person, don’t strain to be jokey and amusing.
Ultimately, try to settle on a tone that fits you best. You might vary it according to the assignment at hand, but only in degree: If you’re most comfortable writing in a light, breezy, chatty tone, you’d turn down the brightness for an article about cancer. But you wouldn’t suddenly change your tone 180 degrees and become a stuffy, lecturing academic just because the subject doesn’t match your natural breeziness.
The same goes for your voice. Find the voice that comes most naturally to you at the keyboard, and stick to it. You might add an edge to it for some assignments or soften it for others, but don’t try to be someone you’re not.
If you have trouble finding your voice, try imagining that your writing projects are letters instead of articles or book chapters. Who are you writing the letter to? Is it easier for you to write a letter to your mom or to a corporate “whom it may concern”? Once you begin writing the letter (or, these days, it may be easier to think of it as an e-mail), you’ll start to discover the voice that unlocks the writer within you.
Together, the tone and voice that fit you best will give you a style that’s uniquely yours. It might be a top hat and tails kind of style, or a rough-hewn clarity more reminiscent of Hemingway. Or it might be a style that’s completely new to readers. After all, the world has never seen anything exactly like you before and, who knows, it might just like your style.
This article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest.