What is Writing Style?

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that style is easy to recognise but difficult to define. I’m not sure whether he was referring to ‘writing’ or to dress (or even something else), but maybe the definition is applicable to writing.

As a relatively new author who is learning the hard way, I have not set out to write in a particular style. My professional background led me to write in a concise management report style with no fluff. I don’t know how much that style has carried over into the way I write fiction, but I do know that I hate to waste words.

Recently I read an essay – ‘That Style Thingie’ by John Barnes, who is a noted SF author. Professionally, he is an English lecturer in a US college and has taught creative fiction writing.

In his essay, he gave examples of work by four noted (SF) authors and discussed their writing styles. His point was that ‘bad style’ is objective and ‘good style’ is subjective. Then he said that the only one of the four writers who had a strong style was the only one whose work he had real difficulty reading. I don’t believe that the genre is central to his argument about style.

To me, style is absolutely distinct from voice. I do tire of verbosity (and John Barnes in his essay used the term ‘wordstorm’). That leads to the question whether style should vary with pace/action – in fact, should style be contingent on the scene? I guess that is a ‘style’ in its own right.

Last night I started reading ‘Lost Nation’ by Jeffrey Lent. If any book smacks of a clear style, that’s one. Whether he used that style in his first book, I don’t know, but the style of ‘Lost Nation’ is set very much by the story’s timing and social context, and also by use of language and structure IMHO. Some examples: adverbs which drop the ‘ly’; structures of the form: ‘…was slapped hard by Blood. Who turned on his heel and walked away.’ (not a direct quote).

I enjoy Ian MacEwan’s writing because the content is interesting, but I find it hard work to read because he ‘drills down’ a little too much for my taste. Still I read them, though I can’t enjoy all the dense prose. So, he has a distinctive, verbose style – in my judgement. Maybe verbose is the wrong adjective – books are verbose by definition?

By the way, John Barnes’s book is Apocalypses and Apostrophes. It’s a collection of some of his essays and short stories.