Writing for Style

It takes awhile for someone’s personal writing style to develop and a lifetime to evolve. Recently I was digging through the stories I wrote as a kid, going back to age 8 or so, and at first I could see that it was a struggle just to find the words I wanted, though some of the words were pretty advanced for an 8-year-old. Later, there’s a definite style to be found—and it’s Arthur C. Clarke’s. Other pieces of fiction reflect the influences of whoever I was reading at the time: Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Frank Herbert, Ernest Hemingway, et cetera. We borrow from our favorites.

However, it wasn’t until I started getting paid to write responses to guest letters at the Walt Disney World Resort that I really got the hang of a personal style. When I first came into the Guest Letters area, I borrowed the writing style of the correspondents who trained me, both of whom had a rather formal style. I also still used my English-paper-writing “voice,” which was on the windy side as well.

I didn’t consider any of this a handicap until I had to train a friend to take over my spot and we were bickering over letter-writing style. I had internalized a rather windy, formal style and was trying to shoe-horn my friend’s writing style into that. Near as I can recall, one day she asked me how I would respond to a particular guest situation, and I wrote a response, to which she came back and asked, “What the heck does this mean?” or words to that effect. So I cut to the quick, explained what I wanted aloud, and Cindy asked pointedly, “Why don’t you just write that?” It was a smart thing to ask, because the thought honestly had not occurred to me. It was like five or ten years’ worth of bad habits fell out of my head. What developed from my friend’s question (thanks, Cindy Lou!) was a much cleaner writing style. Rather than depending on some sort of inherited or in-house style, I found my own “voice” and was able to write much more comfortably because I wasn’t translating my thoughts into someone else’s style first.

The essence of my business-writing style has been a straight-line theory: use the fewest words necessary to get from point A to point B. There have been other influences on me, obviously. I’ve read a great deal of science fiction, history, and philosophy. I’ve been a huge fan of Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which helps identify ways to trim the fat and move closer to clear, direct communication. I’ve also had to write online news stories and PowerPoint presentations, the former of which enforces the “inverted pyramid” style while the latter forces the writer to keep things crisp and brief.

My blogging style is as close as I can get to writing how I speak. How I speak is a mishmash of my parents, both of whom were well-read; my sister and peers; and probably the movies and TV shows I’ve watched over the years. I also picked up my father’s and grandfather’s habits of wit and storytelling.

As for fiction writing, I haven’t done as much since I started getting paid for nonfiction, but you never know. I might find that I’ve got a style of my own after all. Do you?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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