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Writing Short Fiction: Voice and Writing Style

July 31 2013

Dave Hood

The writer’s voice is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing short fiction, including education, socialization, values, beliefs, religion, opinions, and life experiences. The writer’s writing style is part of voice. This writing style is what makes a writer authentic, original, different from other writers. It is what readers hear when they read the short story. The writer’s voice is their “public persona,” which is revealed on the page. The most important features of writing style are word choice or diction, sentence patterns, literary techniques, and tone.

One of the popular writing styles of fiction is the minimalist style. It was a style popularized by Ernest Hemingway, and also endorsed by Raymond Carver. This style focuses on the belief that “less is more.” Writers use short paragraphs, short sentences, write with the active voice, and use action verbs and concrete verbs. The writer omits or deletes every detail that is not essential to the writing. Subtext plays a strong role in this style of fiction.

You can develop your fiction writing style by reading and analyzing short fiction, and then incorporating the techniques of other writers into your own fiction.

(Note: You will also use these same guidelines and techniques to write poetry, personal essays, and other types of creative nonfiction.)

In this article, I’ll discuss writing style as it applies to fiction writing.  The following will be covered:

  • How to identify the author’s writing style.
  • Define Hemingway’s minimalist style.
  • Suggest a writing style to use for writing fiction.
  • Learning to write lyrical prose.
  • Developing your own writing style.

Analyzing Short Fiction

The writer’s style of writing is expressed through word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery, the types of sentences or syntax , as well as the choice of fictional techniques.

The best short fiction writers use everyday language in a fresh and original way.  They also avoid using avoid clichés and jargon. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a word that has powerful meaning.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of sentence patterns, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences, sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of literary techniques, such as flashback, suspense, dialogue, showing and telling, and interior monologue.

The best short fiction writers also use the poetic devices of poetry, including simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and allusion. Some writers use similes and metaphors infrequently, such as Carver and Hemingway. Other writers use them a great deal.

The best short fiction writers use a tone that is conversational and respectful. Tone refers to the writer’s attitude to his/her subject and view of the audience. Never use a condescending tone. Learn to write fiction by reading short stories as a writer. Analyze how the writer used the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices to constructed the short story. As you read, answer these questions:

  1. How does the writer begin the short story? With conflict? With setting description? With dialogue? With action? With a memorable event?
  2. How does the writer develop the setting? What is the time and place of the story? Is it real or fantasy? Does the setting create a mood? Is the setting the antagonist? Does the setting provide a backdrop for the story?
  3. A short story must include conflict, turning point, and resolution. Identify the conflict, turning point, and resolution of the story.
  4. Which point of view does the writer use?
  5. What is the theme? How does the writer reveal theme to the reader?
  6. Where does the writer use scene and summary? What are the features of each scene?
  7. where is there dialogue in the story?  How does the writer use dialogue? What conventions are used?
  8. What fictional techniques does the writer use? What poetic devices does the writer use?
  9. What is the writing style of the writer? Does the writer use simple or fancy words? Does the writer use simple sentences , compound sentences, or fragments?
  10. How does the writer end the story? Does it include an epiphany? Lesson learned? Is the ending open, closed, or a summary?

One of the popular writing styles of short fiction is minimalism, popularized by Ernest Hemingway. He wrote minimalist short fiction. Years later, short story writer Raymond Carver also embraced this style of storytelling. Minimalist short fiction has these attributes:

  • Concrete nouns and action verbs
  • Few adverbs and adjectives
  • Short sentences
  • Short paragraphs
  • Short words and everyday language, as well as familiar instead of fancy words.
  • Minimal character and setting description
  • Minimal background details
  • Very little use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, personification
  • Insufficient resolution or ending to the story

Popular Fiction Writing Style

To write short fiction, develop a writing style that includes:

  • Concrete nouns
  • Action verbs
  • Active voice
  • Sentence variety
  • Figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, personification, allusion
  • Lyrical prose, using alliteration, assonance, repetition, parallel structure

Develop a writing style that is friendly and conversational. Learn to show and tell readers. Use sensory detail, language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. As well, read and master the advice in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Learning to Writer Lyrical Prose

Author Constance Hale, in “Sin and Syntax,” explains how you can learn to write literary prose. There are found components: voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm.

Voice

The writer must consider the literary meaning and implied meaning of words, as well as avoid using clichés and jargon. The writer should also use a variety of sentence patterns, such as a fragment, simple, and compound sentences.

Lyricism

The writer can create prose that sound musical by using the following:

  • Imagery-Use of sensory details.
  • Metaphor-Making a comparison between unlike things, without using “like” or “as.”
  • Simile-Making a comparison between unlike things, using “like” or “as.”
  • Personification. Describing things and objects and ideas by using human attributes. Example: The bible preaches its wisdom to anyone who takes the time.
  • Description. Using concrete, significant, and particular description. Example: He pressed the shutter on his black Nikon, full-frame camera, using a wide-angle lens, capturing a fleeting moment in time, a man being shot by police, for all the world to see.
  • Repetition. Repeating words and phrases in a sentence or sentences that are close to each other.

Example:

Streets and highway filled with an avalanche of snow. The plows bulldoze it away. Icicles hang from the eaves like a work of installation art. Cars stuck, spinning their wheels. The Maple leaf, stands, watches, as the neighborhood shovels. Kids frolic, build snow forts, toboggan down hills of snow in the park behind the school. The storm has interrupted daily routines and rituals.

Melody

The writer can create prose that have a melody by using the poetic devices of:

  • Assonance-Positioning two or more words with the same vowel sounds close together in a sentence.
  • Alliteration- Positing two or more words with the same initial consonant sounds in a sentence.
  • Internal rhyme Selecting words that rhyme and using them in the middle of a sentence.
  • Onomatopoeia -Using words that sound what they describe. Example: The fire crackled.

Rhythm

The writer should strive to create sentences that have rhythm. It refers to pattern, pace, repetition, and parallel structure of a sentence. A simple way to create rhythm is to count the stressed syllables in a sentence. The writer can slow down the pace with long sentences, and speed up the pace with short sentence. Create rhythm in your prose by developing sentences with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Learn to use repetition and parallel structure. Example: He smoked, drank, womanized, and died one day, lounging on the beach in the sunshine with a smile. ( Slow pace)

Developing Your Writing Style

Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several ways. The most important advice I have read was written by Elizabeth Berg, the author of “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.” She suggests that you can develop your writing voice by putting down on to paper the words you are hearing in your mind. In other words, be yourself as you write. Use your own words, and don’t imagine you are someone else as you write. Write honestly—share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, impressions, stories that are important to you. And share them by using your own language–how you speak. She also suggests that you should not write about what you know but that you should write about what you love, what you are passionate about.

Next, you should write often and regularly. Start by keeping a journal. Write everyday in this journal, recording observations, interesting quotations, memorable lyrics, overheard conversation, lines of poetry. Write poetry, anecdotes, short, short essays. Try using the technique of stream of consciousness. Write by freewriting. Record “small, fleeting moments.”Ask a question to yourself, and then write an answer. Include interesting photograph, news stories, advice columns. Write about your emotional truth—how you felt about something. In your journal, you can write about anything. Journal writing helps you develop the habit of writing and your writing skills. It can also be a place where you record “possible ideas” for a poem, short story, and personal essay.

Also, learn all about writing style. The best and easiest book to read is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It provides the rules and guidelines of a good writing style. If you intend to write essays or other creative nonfiction, you should also read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Both of these books are classics, are used in university and college writing courses, and are recommended by most writers. Every writer should have copies of these inexpensive paperbacks on their bookshelf for reference. As well, read Constance Hale’s “Sin and Syntax.”

Next, read short stories to learn how the writer constructed the story. If you are not sure, read “How to Read Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.

Fourthly, make sure you understand the rules and guidelines of grammar, such as for use of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and more. If you don’t know these rules or guidelines, pick up a copy of “Woe Is I:The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor. Another great book that presents grammar in with a humorous tone is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I also recommend “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn the rules of punctuation. How to use the comma, exclamation mark, question mark, quotation marks, semi colon, colon. Essentially, you must memorize the rules. To learn the rules of punctuation, I suggest you read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn to the major types of sentence patterns and then to write poetry, short fiction, and personal essays. The syntax of a sentence is an important feature of the writer’s voice. To develop your own voice, learn to write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences. Learn when to use a sentence fragment and how to write using parallel construction. Learn how to use items in a series. Learn how to write both periodic or cumulative sentences. Where can you go for advice?

Language choices contribute to writer style. Therefore, you should own a dictionary and thesaurus. Use them for enjoyment and to improve your language skills. Develop your language skills by looking up the meaning of words you don’t understand in a dictionary. Find the precise word by checking your thesaurus, which includes synonyms. To expand your vocabulary, begin learning a word a day. Use the words you learn in your writing. Don’t write to impress. Instead, use language to express yourself, to communicate meaning, to entertain, to share important ideas, knowledge, and wisdom with your audience.

If you aspire to become a creative writer, learn how to write imaginatively. Imaginative writing involves learning how to show and tell the reader, writing vivid descriptions of sensory imagery–language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. It involves using literary devices of simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, and other devices that you find in fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction. There are countless books on the market that you can purchase. For a good overview on how to write creatively and imaginatively, I suggest you purchase “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” by writer/instructor Janet Burroway. It’s a superb text that will help you.

Another way to develop your voice is to share emotional truth in your writing. It means telling others how you feel. For instance, if you lost your job–tell your readers how it felt. If you were diagnosed with a serious disease, share your thoughts and feelings with your readers. If you split up with a girlfriend or marital partner, tell the audience how you felt by expressing the emotional truth. Keep in mind that two people can have different emotional views on a situation. And so , there is no right or wrong “emotional truth.” Emotional truth has to do with how you felt about a person, about an experience , about an event.

It takes time to develop your writing voice, providing you write on a regular basis. Many writing instructors suggest you keep a journal and experiment in it. In part, developing your voice is an unconscious effort–you learn by reading and writing, without making a conscious effort. In part, you can make a conscious decision to develop your voice. For instance, you can learn to read like a writer. You can learn grammar, spelling, punctuation. You can experiment with language and sentence variety. You can make a conscious choice about what sort of tone to use. The easiest way to develop your voice is to “put down on paper” what is on your mind.

Your writing voice is what a reader hears when they read your words. Your writing voice is your “public persona,” which is expressed in your writing. It is revealed in the language that you use, the types of sentences that you use, and your tone–your attitude toward the reader and the topic or idea you are writing about.

Additional Reading

To learn more about how to develop your developing and polishing your writer’s voice, read the following superb books:

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
  • The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
  • The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
  • Woe is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Voice and Style

Dave Hood

Your writer’s voice and writing style are developed as you learn, as you experiment, as you master the art and craft of writing. The more you read, the more you experiment, the more you learn about writing, the more polished your writing becomes. Your voice and style emerge as you become a polished writer.

All great writers have a distinctive voice and style, which they learned, developed, and polished over time. For example, fiction writer Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is like minimalism art. His style is sparse. He uses short sentence, and write with nouns and verbs, applies adjectives and adverbs sparingly. His voice is conversational. Many fiction writers aspire to write like Hemingway. Why? Because they like his voice and style of writing.

If you don’t like the tone, or the voice, or the style of writing, you are likely find a personal essay, memoir, or any other creative nonfiction or fiction writing dull. When a work is judged to be dull, the reader will not proceed to read it.

In this article, I’ll discuss voice and style as it applies to creative nonfiction. (The same definition of voice and style applies to fiction and poetry.) The following will be covered:

  • How to analyze the voice and style of writer’s you like
  • Voice of the creative nonfiction writer
  • Writing style of the creative nonfiction writer
  • How to develop your voice and style

Analyzing the Voice and Style of Great Writers

To become a great writer, you must not only write on a regular basis, but also read like a writer. What does reading like a writer mean? It means analyzing the prose of the writers you enjoy reading, learning what sorts of sentences, diction, tone, voice, point of view they use.

In the July 30th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell writes a piece of creative nonfiction called ” Slackers.” He begins the literary journalism essay as follows: “Whenever I take the freeway west from Toronto to my parent’s home, I pass a park where I ran a cross-country race many years ago……” From Gladwell’s beginning, we get a glimpse of his writing voice and style. He uses everyday language, the first- person point of view (“I”), and has a friendly, conversational tone.

In the next section, Gladwell introduces us to Alberto Salazar, the great long-distance runner of a bygone era. Gladwell shifts point of view to third-person, referring to Salazar as “he”, and then begins to profile Salazar. We see that Gladwell makes use of the simile, writing “Salazar shuffled like an old man.” We see that he makes use of the short sentence with “Distance runners tend to be elfin.” We learn that Gladwell is speaking to the reader using everyday language, sentence variety, and the active voice.

You can improve your style and develop your voice by analyzing the prose of writers you like reading. Once you learn how they constructed their essays or memoirs, you can use their techniques, such as syntax or diction in your own writing.

The Writer’s Voice

What is voice? It is a confusing term, often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by those who aspire to become creative writers. One of the best definitions of “voice” is written by author, Jack Hart,  in Story Craft. He suggests that voice is the personality of the writer revealed in the  words on the page. For Hart,  voice has two components:

  • The persona of the writer. A writer has many personas. Some public. Others private. A woman can be a mother, wife, friend, artist, and so on. For each of these personas, the woman as a writer can express a different voice. To understand persona, ask yourself, what kind of personality is revealed on the page? Happy? Sad? Serious? Humorous? Friendly? Sophisticated? Condescending?
  • The position or narrative distance of the writer in relation to the true story. If I tell a story using “I”  or first-point of view, then I am close to the story, probably directly involved or a close observer. On the other hand, if I tell a story using “He/She” or third-person point of view, then I am telling the story from some distance, like a spectator watching a football match from the sidelines.

The writer’s voice is also revealed in the thoughts, feelings, reflections shared on the page with the reader.  This is especially true for creative nonfiction, which relies on the building blocks of scene, summary, and personal reflection, to tell a true story, whether a personal essay or memoir or literary journalism.

Why is voice important? Often, we make a decision to read to its completion a piece of creative nonfiction because we like the voice of the writing. Jack Hart writes that “voice plays a key role in attracting and holding readers, regardless of their subject.

In creative writing, the writer’s voice is an important quality of the writing, especially in personal essays and memoir. And yet, ” the “voice of the writer”  is excluded in so many types of writing. This is true for business writing, technical writing, academic writing.  It is formal writing, laced with jargon, clichés, and written in the third person. In essence, the writing doesn’t reveal the personality of the writer, nor does the writer use “I” or first person point of view. Hart refers to writing that excludes persona as  the ” institutional voice.”

When writing any type of creative writing, you must discard the “institutional voice.” Instead, work to develop a friendly, conversational voice, using everyday language.

The Writer’s Style

What is style? Hart, in Story Craft, suggests that style is different than voice. For Hart, style is the expression of the writer’s personality on the page. How does a writer express his style? There are many components of a writing style. In a general sense, style is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing–views, prejudices, biases, expertise, wisdom, knowledge, and so on.  But this does not enable us to understand a writer’s style as it applies to the writing itself. What, then, are the important components? Most instructors of creative writing will tell you that writing style includes:

  • Word choice or diction. Each word that the writer selects has a dictionary meaning (denotation) Does the writer use educated language, such as ten-dollar words or simple language, everyday language? Most words also have a connotation (implied meaning.) Many words have more than one meaning, depending on the context As well, a writer must strive to use language in a fresh and original way, which means that clichés should not be used. What are clichés? They are warn-out words or phrases that have become dull like old paint on a wall.  A clichés just makes for dull writing. As a writer, you must be cognizant of diction, connotation, and clichés.
  • Syntax or sentence variety. This refers to the length and types of sentences the writer uses–an intentional fragment; simple, complex, compound, or compound-complex sentence; periodic sentence or loose sentence; Declarative, interrogative, or exclamatory sentence; Parallel structure; items in a series. (If you don’t understand these different types of sentences, you ought to learn them and use them.  Sentence variety also refers to the length of the sentence. The writer can select a single word, a phrase, or a longer sentence. Short sentences speed up the pace; long sentences slow down the pace.
  • Figurative Language. You have many choices: metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, symbolism. Figurative language gives an infinite number of possibilities to develop your style. Figurative language is like different colours of paint you use to paint a memorable landscape.
  • Tone. It refers to the attitude of the writer towards the subject and the audience who will read the work. Some writer’s write in a friendly, intimate tone. Other writer’s write with authority and expertise. (There are many types of tone that a writer can use. Never use a condescending tone.) Humourist David Sedaris writes with a humourous tone.

How to Develop Your Writing Style

Writing Style evolves as you write. If you don’t write on a regular basis, If you don’t learn how to write, if you don’t study the writing of great writers, your style will stagnate. Here are a few suggestions on how you can develop your writing style:

  • Expand your vocabulary. If you read a word you don’t understand, look up its meaning in the dictionary. As well, if you don’t have a strong vocabulary, start by learning a new word each day, and then use it in your daily conversations and writing.
  • Read and learn the rules and principles and guidelines On Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
  • Read and internalize the advice in ” On Writing Well” by of William Zinsser.
  • Learn to read like a writer. Not sure how? Pick up a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. How do you read like a writer?  You read good writing in the New Yorker or some other publication.  You analyze the style, word choice, and structure of the writing, learning how the writer constructed the piece of creative writing.
  • Get in the habit of writing each day.  How? Keep a personal journal. The easiest way is to buy a pen and notebook of paper, then begin to write each day.  Write about what is important to you, such as a memory, interesting observation, “important moment.”The act of writing makes you a writer. When you write, experiment with your writing. Learn how to write a loose and period sentence. Learn how to write an inverted sentence. Learn how to write metaphors and similes and use personification. The more often you write, and experiment with your writing, the more original your style will become.
  • When you write, always be yourself. Don’t write in a breezy manner. Don’t use grandiloquent language. Don’t use inflated language. Don’t write as if you are someone else, like creative nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, or fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway. Begin by writing like you speak. Use the language that you use in daily conversation. Relax and write as yourself.

A Few Tips

Here are a few easy ways to improve your writing style and develop your voice:

  • Use the active voice. The verb performs the action of the subject. Examples: You composed a poem about summer….He hit the ball with the tennis racket…I pressed the shutter release, capturing a memorable photograph of a happy moment on the trip.
  • Write with concrete nouns and verbs.
  • Write with verbs that express some action. Examples: Jumped, climbed, punched……….
  • Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. By selecting the best “verb”, a writer can find a word in the dictionary or thesaurus that best expresses the meaning of the adjective and adverb.
  • Use sentence variety—long and short, simple, compound, compound, complex, loose, periodic, and so forth.
  • Write in a friendly, conversational tone. Start by using “contractions.” Image that you are writing to a friend.
  • Use everyday language.

If you want to learn more about voice and style, I suggest you read and learn from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. These are the best books for the lowest price on learning how to write. If you read, learn, and master the rules and guidelines in these books, if you also write every day, and if you read something interesting, like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, even the newspaper, you’ll become an excellent writer. Perhaps you’ll even publish your work of writing art.

Resources

  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
  • Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale