During a fiction writing retreat several years ago, our teacher asked us to select a passage from a favourite book – one in which we admired the writer’s style – and re-write a passage from one of our own stories in the same style as our admired author.
I chose a passage from Possession by A.S. Byatt and, using the author’s style, I rewrote several paragraphs from the story I was currently writing. The resulting new piece was awkward. It didn’t flow. It stood out as being inconsistent with the rest of my work. More importantly, it didn’t feel authentic.
The exercise taught me a valuable lesson: a writer’s style is unique and cannot be forced.
A writer’s style is their unique fingerprint. It comprises word choices, punctuation, sentence length, grammatical structures, syntax and tone, all carefully compiled and created in a certain way. It also encompasses the writer’s use of literary techniques such as flashbacks, foreshadowing, exposition, symbolism, free indirect speech to tell their story in a particular way.
When a writer practises their art, improving their techniques and skills, their style may evolve and change over the years, but their modus operandi will normally remain unique to them. From the time of drafting her first book Sense and Sensibility to her final work Persuasion, Jane Austen’s artistic style evolved over the years, but her style remained distinctive to her.
A writer’s style may be influenced by other writers, or have similarities, but only Ernest Hemingway can write like Ernest Hemingway, only Margaret Atwood can write like Margaret Atwood. Only you can write like you.
Recognising a writer by their distinctive style is comparable to listening to twenty seconds of music and recognising the composer is Claude Debussy or Kate Bush, or observing an artwork on a museum wall and recognising the creator is Georgia O’Keeffe or Gustav Klimt.
Our task as a writer is to develop our own unique, identifiable writing style, and be consistent to that style so our writing is authentic and engaging. And the best way to do this, is to study the art of writing in the same way a person studies to become a nurse, teacher, lawyer or pilot. Participate in writing courses. Read widely, especially writers you admire, so you can learn techniques and see them in action. Practise writing – daily, weekly, monthly – and your unique style will develop.