Writing Advice

Let’s talk about writing style.

There is no easy way to define style, but simply put it is the way you put words together. If is not necessarily how big your vocabulary is, but what you do with the words you do know. Dr. Seuss has a distinct style, but look how simple the words are. Here’s an example from Horton Hears a Who:

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”

Or this from The Places You’ll Go:

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Dr. Seuss sounds like Dr. Seuss because of his style. He uses one-syllable words ninety-nine percent of the time, yet what he says is profound.

John Steinbeck serves as another example. Though he uses simple language in his novels, he creates complex characters in stories that have become a part of American classic literature. Steinbeck presents his narrative in a straightforward manner in East of Eden:

“I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible.”

How about this from The Winter of our Discontent:

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

Remember: writing style does not draw attention to itself. The reader wants to get lost in the story, but if the storyteller keeps popping up and saying, “Look how clever I am with my fancy words,” that escapism is lost. Style is something that comes over time with practice and reading.

The following tips, however, may speed up awareness of style in your own writing.

Word Choice

Pay attention to how word choice may affect the reader. A writer can use words as emotion conductors. Sometimes that emotion is favorable, sometimes it’s disdainful. Whatever the writer is trying to say, she can use words as tools to convey her attitude toward her subject matter.

Remember to consider not only a word’s denotation, but also its connotation.

  • Denotation: A word’s exact meaning. Just look up its definition in the dictionary.
  • Connotation: A word’s emotional overtones. “Home,” for example, suggest warmth and acceptance; “house” carries no such overtones. Compare other words like “thrifty” and “miserly.”

“Grey” means a mixture of black and white. That would be its denotation. When you think of the connotation of “grey”, what emotions come to mind? Gloomy? Sadness? Ambivalence?

Writers can use the connotation of a word to show how they feel about a subject. For example:

  • The slender model strutted down the catwalk.
  • The skinny model strutted down the catwalk.
  • The scrawny model strutted down the catwalk.

All of these sentences imply the model has little body fat on her. But which of these sentences shows a more favorable attitude toward the subject? The adjective “slender” has a more positive connotation than “skinny” or “scrawny.” Slender seems more sensual, sexy, whereas skinny seems to mock the model and scrawny seems downright demeaning.

Active Voice

Let your subject act rather than be acted upon. Instead of saying

The birdhouse was built by Phil.


Phil built the birdhouse.

One way to filter out the passive voice is to look for to be verbs when you are rewriting. To be verbs are verbs like am, are, is, was, were, or will be.

Sentence Length

The written word has rhythm. Whether it is poetry or a short story or an angry note to your oldest son, writing creates bounce in the mind of the reader. How pleasant that “bounce” is depends upon sentence length.

Writing instructor Gary Provost illustrates the importance of sentence length variety:

This sentence has five words. This is five words too. Five word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the symbols, and sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The writer achieves smooth reading when she arranges short sentences with longer sentences. This minimizes monotony. When a writer attempts to create variety with sentence length, she can emphasis an idea or create contrast between two ideas.

Here is an example with little variation:

But the mouse did not answer. He only twitched his whiskers. He thumped his tiny tail. He skittered away. The cat could not see him anymore.

Here is variation:

But the mouse did not answer. He only twitched his whiskers, thumped his tiny tail, and skittered away until the cat could not see him anymore.

Creating sentence length variety can improve writing style almost instantly. It’s one of the first things a writer can do when revising.

Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are ways of saying things when ordinary words just won’t do. They aren’t to be taken literally. They are used in poetry a lot, but can also be used in your prose.

  • Simile: A simile compares two unlike things using “like” or “as.” His hands were wrinkled and weathered like an old leather glove. Here’s an example from Curious George: Up, up he sailed, higher and higher; the houses looked like toy houses and the people like dolls.
  • Metaphor: A metaphor compares two unlike things and says something is something else. The meeting was a circus. This is from Shakespeare: Juliet is the sun. Here’s another example: forest of windmills.
  • Personification: Personification gives the inanimate, the non-living, the abstract or the “unhuman” the qualities of being alive or human. The screen door flew open. The floors creaked. The wind blew through the trees. The idea would not leave her alone. From Dr. Seuss: This is your day, your mountain is waiting so get on your way.
  • Hyperbole: Hyperbole is exaggeration. A writer uses hyperbole to create emphasis or even humor. She changed her mind as often as she inhaled. In this following passage from The Polar Express, the narrator is describing a train ride to the North Pole: We climbed mountains so high it seemed as if we would scrape the moon.
  • Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia is the use of words that imitate the sounds they describe–for example, words like snap and crackle.

Use figures of speech sparingly. Too many metaphors in a paragraph may wear out a reader. Here’s a simile to remember when it comes to using figures of speech: figures of speech are like spice; too much ruins the soup, but just the right amount enhances the flavor.


In literature, a symbol is something concrete that represents something abstract. For example, a withered plant may represent a failed relationship. Many times that abstract thing is an emotional state. “Symbols offer a route into deeper meanings in a narrative, beyond surface events.” Symbolism in writing can give a story deeper meaning than the events happening on the surface.

Examples of symbols:

darkness = evil
light = good
a man’s guilty conscience = constant washing of hands

Symbolism in writing can’t be forced. It emerges as you write and rewrite. Sometimes if symbolism is forced into your story, it kills the narrative, makes it seem untrue. Sometimes it is best to concentrate on describing a person or object with honesty and not scream out “Look at me! I’m using symbolism!”

Once, when I was writing a short story, a dog in the story unintentionally became a symbol for the situation the dog’s owner found himself in. Someone who read the story pointed this out–I didn’t write it that way, but it worked for me. That made me realize how the subconscious inserts itself in the creative writing process.


One way to define subtext is what’s not being said. Another way to define it would be this: what’s really happening below the surface?

The subtext is shown in action and dialogue. The writer doesn’t come out and say what’s happening. What’s really happening. For example:

“Here.” Cam thrusts the bouquet into her face.

Stacey jerked her head back. A smile touched her face, but left it. Her eyes narrowed. “Thanks. What are these for?”

“Well, you know. I just wanted to do something special. I passed a flower shop on the way home so I …”

Silence filled the room for several seconds. She looked at him and he looked at the floor.

“Thanks.” Her eyes grew narrower still. “I’ll go put these in water.” With hesitation, she turned and walked down the hall toward the kitchen.

On the surface it appears Cam offers a loving gesture. But his actions—looking down at the floor, his vague reason for getting flowers, even the fact that he got her flowers–show something else beneath the surface. Maybe he spent all their savings without telling her? Maybe he’s having an affair? It just seems like he feels guilty about something, so he buys her flowers.

And what about Stacey? The smile leaves her face immediately. Her eyes narrow. Her hesitant walk. She suspicious. She knows Cam doesn’t bring flowers home for no reason at all.

If you add subtext to your writing, you will be adding that special layer