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In Quest of An Elegant Writing Style

What makes one writer’s style “elegant” and another’s merely functional (Phillip Pullman’s description of Rowling’s writing style) or just plain dull? (Look for Warriors of Alavna by N M Browne for a good example of dull writing.)

I’m sure there are many reasons, but I suspect it’s mostly something few people enjoy: sheer hard work. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

  1. Always use the right word rather than an approximation.
  2. Use only as many words as needed to tell your story. (Easier said than done, of course!)
  3. Avoid clichés, except when a cliché is exactly what you need.
  4. Don’t use colloquialisms, except in dialogue (where appropriate). For example, the word “gotten” is extremely inelegant, especially in narrative. I’m personally not fond of “got” either and use it only when I have no choice.
  5. Shun long words when a short one will do. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Often the long word is the only one that means exactly what you want to say, and if you’re writing for children you might have to resort to several words.
  6. Vary the length of your sentences to avoid a choppy effect. If you write for the very young, this might not be possible, but even middle-grade readers should be able handle a sentence covering more than one idea.
  7. Use strong words rather than weak. For instance, instead of writing that your character ran, try something more evocative. If you write “he pelted down the path”, your readers will hear the thud of his footsteps. When someone is moving slowly, they could amble, wander, saunter, stroll, even creep or stalk if the situation was appropriate. Other ways of walking could be tramp, stomp, hike, march, stride.
  8. Avoid strings of monosyllabic words that create a bumpy effect. (“We set off down the track to the lake.”)
  9. Don’t use more than two sentences in a row that start with the same word. Readers do notice—if only subconsciously.
  10. Avoid too many consecutive paragraphs starting with the same word. It looks ugly.
  11. Vary the length of paragraphs. Also, if writing for middle-grade readers and younger, keep paragraphs reasonably short. Paragraphs that cover a whole page, or even half a page, can be daunting.
  12. Don’t use alternatives to “said”, unless the word is a way of speaking—shouted, whispered, yelled, for instance. Grunt, sigh and laugh are noises, not ways of speaking. For middle-grade readers and above, some action pointing to the speaker can be an effective substitute, as long as it isn’t there only to avoid using said.
  13. Rewrite sentences to avoid repetitions such as “had had” and “that that”. It’s nearly always possible.
  14. Follow the rules of good grammar—at least most of the time.
  15. Break grammar rules to create the right effect, for instance by starting a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” or “but”. The examples below are all from The Stones Are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean:
    1. Example of incomplete sentence use:
      “... the exquisite smoothness of the pebble in his hand made him look at it afresh—at its mottled whiteness. One silent minim. An egg.”
    2. Examples of starting a sentence with a conjunction, for effect:
      • “How was this raiding of nests any better than Sweeney plucking songbirds out of the air and prising open their chests? And Sweeney had cause.”
      • “He mistook the glint for the shine of animal eyes watching him. But it was simply the Faeries’ Golconda, their treasure hoard.”

      In the second example, by using a full stop instead of a comma, McCaughrean places emphasis on the fact that the glint was only the Faeries’ Golconda. Phelim’s discovery would be nowhere near as effective if the two sentences were joined.

  16. Don’t start a sentence with a preposition if possible. If any rewrite you try makes the sentence clumsy or pompous, however, don’t worry too much about it; just return to your original sentence. Whatever pedantic so-called experts on creative writing may say, pompous or clumsy-sounding narrative just to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition is far from acceptable. Winston Churchill, when criticised for this fault (presumably in a political document) is reported to have demonstrated the point by replying, “It is an accusation up with which I will not put.” Or something similar.
  17. Avoid run-on sentences. For instance, “My mum’s not all that bad, she’s just stricter than most mothers” would work better with a semi-colon instead of a comma. Sometimes a full stop is more appropriate. Unlike unfinished sentences, run-on sentences serve no stylistic purpose at all.
  18. Study the work of writers who are noted for their elegant style.

Obviously there’s a lot more to elegant prose than the above—and of course these are only my opinions; not fact. I’ll add more ideas to the list as they occur to me. In the meantime, for further writing tips, see other links on my Site Map.

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