Seasoned writers each have their own distinct methods and approaches that set their writing apart from others. An author’s writing style is the culmination of all the unique techniques, habits, and choices they make.
Because it’s so abstract and fluid, writing style can be difficult to pin down—even for the writers themselves! Evaluating the way famous authors write is hard enough, but what if you want to develop or enhance your own writing style?
This guide explains the fundamentals to help you understand. We’ll cover the different elements of writing styles, compare the writing styles of famous authors, and even give some tips on how to improve your own writing style.
First, let’s get a definitive answer to the essential question:
What is writing style?
Have you ever been in a group chat where you knew who was writing without seeing their name? Chances are, you were so familiar with that person’s writing style that you recognized it right away.
The writing choices an author makes tend to follow patterns. When a writer finds a technique or habit they like, they stick with it, often throughout their entire career. Put all those writing choices together, and the writing takes on a unique “voice” that “sounds” different from other writing.
However, just because a writer uses one writing style doesn’t mean they’re tied to it forever. Writers are free to change up their style as needed, even within the same work, just by altering their techniques and making different choices. Some sections might call for a serious style, while just a few paragraphs later a playful one is needed.
We all change up our communication styles depending on our needs. The language and tone you use with friends is different than the language you use with teachers or coworkers. Writing is no different.
While it’s difficult to define writing style, don’t make the mistake of conflating it with the types of writing. For example, narrative writing is a type of writing, but you can do it in any number of styles: playful, somber, clinical, casual, etc. The same can be said for expository, persuasive, and descriptive writing.
The components of writing style
In a sense, all writing choices are equal, but they evoke different responses in the reader. If the author wants to make the reader laugh, they’ll make different writing choices than an author who wants to scare their reader, or teach their reader, or persuade their reader.
While all the minutiae of writing choices ultimately affect the final style, it helps to break them down into three main categories: word choice, structure, and punctuation.
Words each carry their own special emotional connotations and contextual associations, so writers must choose the words that best match their desired outcome. To put it another way, if a writer wants to be formal, they’ll choose words that sound formal.
This is true even when words technically have the same meanings. Consider the difference between these three phrases:
- getting let go
- getting fired
- getting canned
Each refers to the same thing—the termination of employment—but they each have their own special connotations. “Getting let go” is often a euphemism for termination, used to politely protect someone’s feelings; “getting fired” is the standard, but would come across as insensitive in a formal environment; and “getting canned” is more colloquial, best used in a joking or casual setting.
Writers are free to use any words they want but should consider the connotations if they’re aiming for a particular style.
Structure (sentence and paragraph)
Just like words can have the same meaning with different connotations, so too can individual sentences and paragraphs. By rearranging their structure, an author can change how the sentence is interpreted, sometimes drastically.
Hippopotamuses kill more humans than sharks do.
Sharks kill fewer humans than hippopotamuses do.
Both sentences are saying the same thing, but have slightly different connotations. The first is more factual and straightforward, but the second is more dramatic, saving the intended surprise until the end.
Structure also accounts for the lengths of sentences. Some writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, are known for their quick, to-the-point sentences, which create a fast-paced and urgent writing style. Other writers, namely Charles Dickens, favor long, descriptive sentences, which create a vivid and immersive writing style.
The same principles that apply to sentence structure can also apply to paragraph structure. Some authors have paragraphs that last more than a page, while others never write paragraphs longer than four sentences. Both are equally viable, but the choice should align with one’s writing style.
Have you noticed that some writers never use semicolons while others can’t stop? The choice of punctuation affects how sentences are read, so it has a direct impact on writing style.
More than anything, punctuation affects pacing. Commas, periods, colons, and other punctuation marks all denote pauses in text, similar to a rest in music. Excessive punctuation tends to draw out the writing and slow it down—a good technique for building suspense or encouraging reflection.
Writers can use punctuation any way they’d like. More often than not, writers follow punctuation rules. Sometimes they break them for stylistic reasons, for example writing one continuous run-on sentence across pages to represent a stream of consciousness.
Examples of writing styles from famous authors
Let’s look at some excerpts and quotes from famous authors to illustrate writing style in action. So you can see the difference style makes, all of our examples are about the same topic: the common house cat.
“Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the leash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”
The style Twain uses here is very respectful, using absolutes (“Of all God’s creatures”) and comparisons to show admiration, along with poetic phrases to engage the reader like “slave of the leash.”
“I am glad you have a Cat, but I do not believe it is so remarkable a cat as My Cat.”
Eliot plays with grammar style to capitalize the words “Cat” and “My” to subtly show reverence.
William S. Burroughs
“Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”
While Eliot “plays” with grammar, Burroughs flat-out abandons it for incomplete sentences, writing in all caps, and inconsistent commas. The erratic writing style, however, supports the passion and emotional message he’s trying to communicate.
“when I am feeling
all I have to do is
watch my cats
I study these
they are my
Poetry offers more leeway for breaking grammar rules, so poets enjoy extra freedom to develop their writing styles. Bukowski speaks plainly with no metaphors or hidden meanings, so when he says directly “they are my teachers,” it carries more impact because we know he’s telling the truth.
3 ways to develop your own writing style
1 Read more
The more writing styles you expose yourself to, the more options you have to emulate in your writing. Reading a diverse range of styles, especially outside of what you’re used to, can teach you new techniques and literary devices—but you won’t discover them unless you look.
2 Play to your strengths
Do you have an excellent vocabulary? It’ll be easier for you to find the perfect word for every situation. Do you have a talent for realistic descriptions? Give yourself space to write longer, more detailed sentences. Your writing style should reflect your particular skills as a writer, so use it to accent your best features.
3 Do what comes naturally
What type of writer are you? Are you the Meticulous Plotter, or maybe an Escape Artist? Let your writing style develop on its own based on what comes naturally to you. You’ll find yourself drawn to certain techniques or words over others because they fit your personality. That’s really all writing style is: the writer’s personality shining through.
This article was originally written in 2019 by Daniel Potter. It’s been updated to include new information.