Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Musings on Style

by Pat Thomas Publisher, Editor and Writer

Merriam-Webster defines style is a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed…a distinctive manner of expression (as in writing or speech).

An author’s style is the unique way they handle conventions, along with the words they choose, the decisions they make when faced with writing choices, and how they string the words together. Experienced writers understand the importance of having a consistent style within a genre. They know that changes in style are noticed by loyal readers and draw attention to the word or sentence level, and slow down the reader.

When a writer chooses a different writing style it’s often because they’re switching genres. For instance, the same author would write differently to compose a YA romance than they would write to create an adult thriller with romantic elements. For an aware writer, those differences are conscious, intentionally meant to appeal to a different audience and also to cue loyal readers that this is something different. Often a penname clarifies this, so readers can find the books they enjoy.

If decisions aren’t clear in a writer’s mind, it’s difficult for a writer to successfully switch genres and appeal to different audiences. A writer using the same name and same style and branching into a different genre is likely to disappoint and even upset loyal readers who can be confused and disappointed when they purchase books with the expectation of a certain type of read, and it’s not delivered.

Goodreads says JD Robb and Nora Roberts demonstrate this shifting of style well: Nora Roberts explained her decision to use the penname J.D. Robb saying the style of writing was different in those books than her Nora Roberts books. Nora Roberts, crafted two different styles to purposefully attract and hold two reading audiences.

 If you were to look at style sheets, based on a book by Nora Roberts and another by J.D. Robb, you would quickly discover different stylistic choices are made regarding sentence length, complexity of sentence structure, use of punctuation, choice of words and so much more. Likenesses and variations are planned and applied consistently. The style you’d find in one book by J.D. Robb would appear in other books by J.D. Robb.

Julianne MacLean, a RWAC member and New York Times Today bestselling author successfully writes in two genres: historic romance, and contemporary. To cue readers about the differences she began her contemporary line as Eve Mitchell (with Julianne MacLean also on the cover) and as Julianne MacLean for her historicals. The different genres reveal different plot constructions, different sentence lengths, and moving from linear in her historic romances to a more organic and recursive plot movement in her new contemporary The Color of Heaven series. All planned. All crafted. And applied consistently.

Bev Pettersen, RWAC award-winning and Amazon bestselling romantic suspense author, works with consistent style but also pays particular attention to how her books look on e-readers. When she wears her reader’s hat, she finds that some conventions, like em dashes and deep indents, spaces between paragraphs and many other details affect the enjoyment of her ‘read’ because of the size and type of lighting on the e-reader. When she prepares to publish, Bev is very aware of spacing and punctuation, and how those things affect readers of her books. The decisions about those things become stylistic along with decisions she makes about serial commas and style of capitalization and so many other things.

Have you read books where writing conventions are applied inconsistently? Where the wording choices or use of capitals, or spelling variations have no pattern for a reader to relax within? Perhaps the author didn't know about the comma between adjectives of equal value, where the comma allows the reader to shuffle the adjectives without consequence as they read. When there's no comma, there's no flexibility for the reader.

By not applying a convention, the author takes away the permission a reader would otherwise have to choose. The omission of that comma signals the reader the rules have changed, that the reader has no license to create the text and meaning their way. They must figure out a new pattern – and if there’s not one, that can be a difficult task. Make reading harder. Patterns in style and use of conventions actually give the reader a type of freedom, and allow readers latitude to select and change text to create meaningful connections as they read.

Conventions are needed in the same way we need street signs and speed limits.

Conventions, like street signs, alert us as readers. An example would be the convention of the quotation mark left off the end of dialogue paragraphs when the same speaker continues into a new paragraph – after changing direction slightly. If a writer closes every paragraph of dialogue with closing quotes even if the speaker continues, then it confuses a reader. It will feel like the ball’s been passed to the next player when that’s not the case. Several readers will note it and move on. Others will be confused by the closing quotes. It will slow them down considerably as they reread and think harder, not about meaning, but on how to create meaning with the structure of the text. Another level of difficulty is added when you change what readers expect a text to be like.

Unexpected changes draw readers out of the story in a way that slows them down, until they adjust to the style – and they can only do that if the unexpected style choices are consistent. Otherwise it’s starts and stops and reconfiguring to get the meaning. But consistent application of style allows the pace to move at a clip.

Newfoundland writer, Michael Crummey is an example of an award-winning writer who used this awareness of style to advantage in his book, Galore. He used em dashes instead of quotation marks to indicate dialogue. It was a British tradition that took getting used to for North American readers but as soon as readers understood the signal for dialogue it worked for Crummey’s readers. He was applauded and lauded for presenting dialogue in this way. If however he’d used quotation marks sometimes and the em dash at other times it would confuse rather than be brilliant.

In a similar way, highway planners face the need to move traffic more quickly as well as satisfy driver expectations. They must consider drivers as they plan new ways to handle traffic. Posting signs in metric sometimes and in miles other times, without rhyme or reason, would confuse. Pick one. Be consistent. Four-way stops, lights at intersections, or traffic circles or overpasses – handle them the same way every time. The choices make a difference on how cars move along a section of highway and how readers create meaning and enjoyment as they read.

Gertrude Stein might disagree.

Looking to be different, and to guide readers in different ways is not anything new. In 1933, Gertrude Stein did this in her autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of Toklas, her life partner. Nothing about Stein’s book is conventional. She was a scholar, and knew exactly what the conventions were, and how they were traditionally applied to text. Because of that, she could remove them – dashes, question marks, and apostrophes, exclamation marks, and hyphens and sometimes even commas. From what I understand, Stein’s reasoning was that careful wording allowed a shifting of gears that soon made ‘how to read the text’ obvious without the punctuation others relied on.

She claimed readers didn’t need to have punctuation if writing was clear and the meaning obvious through careful word selection and wording. Stein chose not to use certain ambiguous words too. She made careful decisions and applied them in scholarly ways, in obvious ways her reader understood once the original shock of change settled. Her book became a literary bestseller and Stein quickly rose from relative obscurity into the light of mainstream regard.

Her writing choices and the way she predicted and planned for her audience response, show us that things can be dealt with in new ways, with care and consistency. I guess the message here is to know what you do, and why, and apply that consistently.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on this topic.

Pat Thomas


  1. It's interesting, isn't it, Pat? I have to admire the way authors like Julianne or Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb handle this so seamlessly.

    1. Yes, Jennie. If they do it well, it appears seamless, but the reality is a lot of hard thinking and knowing the choices you have and sticking to them.
      It was a lot to read and I thank you for that too.


  2. Please accept my sincere apologies; Michael Crummey, the Newfoundland writer's name is misspelled and the version of my blog with the correction was not posted. So sorry.

  3. Thanks for the enlightening post, Pat. Appreciate your editing skills and your generosity in sharing all that knowledge.

    1. But you know all this, don't you Bev? Glad you found your way through it. And thanks for that too.


  4. Pat, you clearly define some of the good things many writers do instinctively because of having absorbed so many, many books. You also clarify some of the things that set my teeth on edge when I come across them.
    Thank you for this glimpse into the intricate clockworks, and for identifying some of the gears that make the magic happen.

  5. Glad you 'got it' Heidi. There's so much I get to see, so many good things pop out as I work with authors. Then the patterns emerge but I can't always put them into words. Glad it made some sense. And I know what you mean about 'setting' your 'teeth on edge. When that happens, it's really good to figure out why and how...

  6. A great reminder to focus on writer consistency and clarity to avoid reader confusion and aggravation. Thanks, Pat.