Writing styles are a basic component of content. There are many ways to write, and it’s a useful exercise to look into this more carefully. Throughout this article, I’ll argue that there’s a popular and specific writing style spanning different forms of content. This doesn’t mean this is the only way to write though. It does mean, however, that we should try to master this style first, before we attempt others. Let’s take a look.
The Correct Writing Style?
Is there a correct writing style? No, not really. There are as many writing styles as there are writers. This diversity is great and necessary. Having said that, there is a certain tendency towards a specific writing style in many quarters, because of its purported usefulness. Let’s explore this a bit more, with a little bit of literary history.
Pithy Writing Style
Copywriters are generally advised to write pithily. This means avoiding excessive words and particularly adjectives. It also means writing rather pithy sentences instead of long ones. If we were to compile a list, we could come up with general advice which includes the following:
No excess in words or adjectives.
Shorter sentences instead of longer ones.
No excessively long paragraphs.
Avoid the passive voice.
American Writing Style?
This writing style is popular in the United States. There may be certain reasons for this. I argue that the influence of Hemingway in American writing is great. Salinger is probably another great influence in this regard. I also feel that American sensibilities sometimes veer towards the pragmatic too. Let’s try to see this with some examples.
Here’s Hemingway, for starters, with the opening paragraph of ‘The Sun Also Rises’:
“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Kelly’s star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.”
Read this review, for example, which points out the lean and vigorous writing style. It does a great job of describing this type of prose:
“No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame. Mr. Hemingway knows how not only to make words be specific but how to arrange a collection of words which shall betray a great deal more than is to be found in the individual parts. It is magnificent writing.”
I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Hemingway’s style was the defining writing style of twentieth-century United States. Its influence can still be felt today in many quarters, as we’ll study later in this article.
If you want to compare writing styles, check out another behemoth of American literature. In his case, however, the writing style (or the attempts by others to imitate this style ) didn’t quite make such a splash in the mainstream. I’m talking, of course, about William Faulkner. Read the opening paragraph of ‘As I Lay Dying’:
“Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cotton-house can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.”
Another extraordinary writing style, though not quite adopted by the mainstream is Nabokov’s. Although Russian-born, this writer did write in English and became a powerhouse of American literature. Read the first lines of ‘Lolita’:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
Now then, it’s worth pointing out that this analysis only posits that the lean prose of Hemingway has made a bigger splash in the mainstream. I do think these three writers and their styles are extraordinarily accomplished, probably equally so. In fact, if I had to pick a favorite I would go with Nabokov.
Lean prose became very influential. Check out Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ to see lean prose in action. This style would go on to define much of popular writing and also screenplays:
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”
Screenplays and Hollywood
The influence of novels, films, and popular entertainment in the creation of a writing style can’t be overstated. Robert McKee accurately states: “Who, after all, invented screenwriting? Novelists and playwrights who came to the cradles of our art in Hollywood, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and Moscow to write the scenarios of silent films.”
Screenwriting has developed tremendously in the United States. It has drawn from people such as Lajos Egri and Joseph Campbell. More recent theorists and writing coaches like Robert McKee and John Truby, among others, have developed the screenplay immensely. Screenwriting has also, in turn, influenced storytelling and writing in general.
There are certain principles that seem to have been set for the screenplay. These include elements such as the following:
An active protagonist who has a character arc.
Linear progression of events with a consistent reality. Causality is key.
Three acts: A first act which ends in a turning point. A long second act divided by a midpoint and which culminates in a final turning point. A third act which includes a climax and a resolution.
Conflict is mostly external rather than internal.
The ending is closed and there’s a clear resolution and climax to the events.
Evidently, this structure owes a great debt to the structure of myth. Arguably, the myth genre, so to speak, is the underpinning of vast amount of films and television. There are other elements to a screenplay, which brings us more directly into the consideration of writing styles:
Dialogue is essential. It moves the story forward and reveals character. Subtext in dialogue is a key component. Emphasis must be made to avoid writing dialogue that is too ‘on the nose’ (too evident and silly).
The scene is the basic unit. It propels the story, is marked by conflict and has clear beats which build on top of each other.
The story has a clear strong premise.
The story strives to show and not tell, avoiding exposition.
The Elements of Style
‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White is a tremendously influential writing guide. This book advises several things. We’ll realize that these seem quite familiar to us already. They are quite similar, in many ways, to the lean style we’ve been discussing. They literally state, among other things:
Use the active voice.
Put statements in the positive form.
Use definite, specific, concrete language.
Omit needless words.
Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
Do not overwrite.
Avoid fancy words.
Do not overstate.
Do not explain too much.
Use figures of speech sparingly.
Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
I’m positing that there’s a lean writing style, evident in prose, screenplays, and influential in other (perhaps most) types of content. But are there exceptions? You bet.
There have always been exceptions to these principles. We started out this article pointing out authors like Nabokov and Faulkner. These, in turn, have influenced other authors in the United States and around the world. In the case of film and television screenplays, there surely are notable exceptions. European filmmakers like Fellini or French New Wave auteurs like Godard are surely real exceptions. Think of a film like ‘8 ½’ or ‘My Life to Live’ for instance.
In the United States, however, three-act design rules the show. Even exceptional films like Memento, Inception, and others do follow a three-act structure. If we look at the nuts and bolts of these creations, they do follow the tenets of traditional filmmaking. Compare a film like ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ and ‘Inception’ and you’ll discover this quite concretely.
So, Can I Write in a Different Style?
Absolutely. But be sure to understand classical design and lean prose first. If you venture into another writing style, or want to create one, be sure to defeat classical design with better writing. Write great work!
Choosing a Writing Style
At the end of the day, a style really chooses you or your content instead. What’s most important is serving the work and not writing in a certain style for its own sake. Having said that, there is quite a bit of content that works best in what we’ve defined as the lean and traditional style.
Relevance in Other Content?
We’ve talked about prose in novels. We’ve linked the writing style of novels to the screenplay. We’ve been able to glean some principles which seem to characterize classical design. But, is this style relevant in other content? The simple answer is, yes. Other forms of content will be able to benefit from lean and vigorous prose. They’ll also benefit from being structured according to the principles of traditional dramatic writing.
You may be looking for written content of several types like articles, blogs, newsletters, technical writing, and much more. Alternatively, you may need to create long-form content like books or screenplays, or advertising. You may also be looking for a proficient editor to improve your written content or first-class translators who are also writers.