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Rx from the Book Doctor: Style versus Style

August 1, 2014

b. christmasI love to write about style and speak about it at gatherings for writers, but I’ve learned that some folks do not understand exactly what I mean by “style.”

The problem begins with the fact that “style” can refer to two things. The Chicago Manual of Style explains one type of style. It dictates style issues such as when and what to capitalize, how to treat numbers (write them out or use the numerals), and even where to place commas.

The book publishing industry follows Chicago style almost exclusively, because it standardizes things that grammar books do not address, and it adds consistency to books. I don’t talk much about that type of style, however. I speak prefer to write about and talk about creative writing style.

What is creative writing style? It refers to syntax, which means word choices, word order, clear writing, and more. When I speak of style, I talk about things I see in far too many manuscripts, and I tell writers how to avoid writing the same way as everyone else. Once writers become aware of their style of writing and delete the things that almost everyone else has in their writing, what remains will sparkle, have personality, and be stylish.

What sort of things am I talking about? Creative writers know they should not unintentionally use the same word too often, especially close together, yet almost every writer in the world has favorite words that show up time and again in their writing. While we cannot avoid duplication entirely, we often do not realize how often we use certain words. A good editor will point out overused words in your manuscript, or at the very least, have someone read your manuscript and let you know if any words stand out as overused. Sometimes we can discover this truth for ourselves by reading our manuscript aloud.

Once you know which words you overuse, use the Find function on your computer (Ctrl+F) to find how many times you used that word and where it appears. Next address each usage and reduce the repetition by half or more.

In addition to word repetition, strong writers avoid sentence-structure repetition. I recently edited a manuscript that was about 220 pages long, and on almost every page in the manuscript,four or more sentences began with an introductory phrase. Of those, two or more began with a gerund or participle (word ending with -ing). While nothing is incorrect about using introductory phrases, gerunds, or participles, the overuse of them grew repetitious. Changing a few of those sentences improved the writing style. To give some made-up examples, let’s say the following sentences appeared scattered about on the same page:

Hopping into the car, she said hello.

Leaning on a tree, he surveyed the campground.

Having nothing left to do, she packed her bags.

While the sentences are grammatical, the repeated structure can be distracting. I would recommend revisions that might read this way:

She said hello when she hopped into the car.

He leaned on a tree and surveyed the campground.

Once she determined that she had nothing left to do, she packed her bags,

Voila! Repetition gone; strong writing prevailed.

Avoiding repetition is one way to improve your writing style. Attend my sessions at the FWA conference in October, and I will give many other ways to improve your creative style.

Yours in writing,

Bobbie Christmas

About the Author: Bobbie Christmas, professional editor and award-winning writer, founded Zebra Communications in 1992 to help writers prepare books for publication. A lifetime member of FWA, she oversees the Editors Helping Writers service. Because she cures ailing manuscripts, people refer to her as a book doctor. Her website is www.zebraeditor.com, and her e-mail address is Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.

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2 Comments
  1. August 1, 2014 7:54 am

    Not only do you have style, Bobbie, you have class!

    • August 9, 2014 10:44 am

      Thank you! No one has ever told me I have class, but at least I give classes…and seminars, too.

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