How to switch your writing style

Word count: 752 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Here are some writing tips if you ever need to change your style….

I remember walking by my daughter’s bedroom some four years ago and catching her at her computer, weeping. “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” I asked with concern. “I c-c-c-can’t write t-t-t-this essay,” she said through sobs. She was referring to a history essay – her most loathed subject at the time. “Have you finished your research?” I enquired. “N-n-n-no,” she admitted.

That was precisely her problem. She couldn’t write because she didn’t yet know what she needed to write about.

I thought of this incident recently, when I received an email from a subscriber named Val who wrote: “I’d like your advice on how to switch writing styles.”

Val continued: “I’ve been writing a sort of blog-cum-newsletter for years while I lived abroad. Now I would like to write some short stories but can’t seem to translate my copious life experience into short-story mode.”

Although my subscriber didn’t have exactly the same problem as my daughter — she knew what she wanted to write about, she just didn’t know how to do it. The answer, however, was the same. She needed more research.

Because we all read, I think many of us assume that we should automatically know how to write in a particular fashion simply by osmosis.  Well, of course reading helps. So my first suggestion to Val was to read lots of short stories. (One of my favourite such writers is Alice Munro, but we’re all different so you should choose writers that appeal especially to you.)

Experiment with all the different genres: literary, sci fi, mystery, romance, travel. Read short stories until your eyeballs feel as though they’re going to fall out. Read short stories until you’re just about sick of them and create a list of the authors you like best.

Then, when you find an author whose style you admire so deeply you would like nothing better than to write just like that person, you will have your model.

Your next task is to get a thorough understanding of how this writer manages plot. So re-read one of his or her stories carefully and write a 250-500 word summary. (If the story is super short, force yourself to stay within the lower end of this range.)

Because this is a short story, you should photocopy the entire thing. Then mark up the text into three sections: the beginning, the middle and the end. Now, write a summary of each section, again making each summary in the 250-500 word range (so, here, you will have more room to give slightly more detail than your overall summary.)

After you’ve done this, you will have a very good understanding of how your writer has managed the plot. Then you should repeat this process with at least three other stories that you like almost as much as the first one.

Your next job is to analyze the style of your ideal short story writer. Begin by copying about 1,000 words of one of the stories you really like. I mean this literally. There is no faster way to internalize the style of another writer than by copying word for word. I suggest you do this on your computer, rather than by hand, because then you’ll be able to run the text through readability statistics. Once you have these stats, pay particular attention to the average length of words, and the average number of words per sentence. (You should aim for similar results in your own writing.)

Then, take your photocopies and start marking up the stories. Begin by using a highlighter to mark all the verbs. What kinds of verbs does your writer favour? Are they state-of-being verbs (is/was/were/will be) or are they more idiosyncratic (pelt/muse/revile)? And what about the nouns? Are they largely concrete (chair pen, dog) or abstract (deceit/curiosity/trust)? Furthermore, does the writer use much imagery? Here I’m talking about similes, metaphor and personification. If the writers you admire use these techniques, then you should as well.

I know I risk sounding like I endorse a paint-by-numbers approach to writing. I don’t! I’m simply saying that when you’re deliberately trying to learn a new technique — one you’ve never used before — you need to study the work of people who’ve already done it successfully.

Begin by imitating — in effect, imposing your own content on someone else’s style — and, slowly your own unique style will emerge.

And if this sounds like too much work for the dog days of summer, just begin with the reading.

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