Writing style tips are always a troublesome topic. Literature is very diverse, which means that there is a fantastic counterexample for every more or less reasonable tip. To those who support that the most important thing is the power of synthesis, you can show the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust; to those who propose to respect orality, you can show River of Sorrows, by Libertad Demitrópolus; to those who want to get rid of repetition, you can throw The Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs. No matter how many creative writing courses promise the opposite, the truth is that nothing is certain in literature. An old joke says that half the writers in the world believe it’s impossible to teach how to write, and the other half agree, but believe they can still charge for it.
Commandments and Other Writing Tips
Despite all of these contradictions, there are still many books, lists, commandments, handbooks, guides, and recipes with writing tips. Some of them were even written by famous authors, like the extremely funny list of writing tips by storyteller Roberto Bolaño, or Ser escritor, by Abelardo Castillo. Finding something in common between these texts is practically impossible, which is why there is no other option but to use another criterion, maybe a more reasonable one: mere whim. That’s how we chose, among many writing tips, the ones we thought more reasonable: ten writing tips to improve your style.
10 Tips to Improve Your Writing Style
It is uncommon for the first version of a text to be the best one. Yes, Kerouac took only twenty days to write his novel On the Road, but he then spent six years proofreading it. Many authors recommend letting some time pass between the writing and the proofreading so that we can approach the manuscript with a bit of distance. As Liliana Heker says in her ten commandments of writing (“Los diez mandamientos de la escritura”): the first version of a text is only a necessary evil.
2. Be Consistent
Consistency in decision-making is one of the keys to every literary style. Most of the features that we identify as proper of a particular author —Hemingway’s austerity, García Márquez’s ornate adjectives, and Leila Guerriero’s edgy punctuation— are recognizable because they are applied systematically. We could say that two different styles are two different solutions to the same problems. That’s why, for a text to be read in a uniform way, it’s important to set some parameters (and then respect them).
3. Avoid Confusion
Characters can be confused, but the author should not. About this topic, Abelardo Castillo wrote: “Ambiguity isn’t the same as confusion. A story should always have a single ending. If you wanted to suggest two or more conclusions, those conclusions are the same ending: it’s called ambiguity. If nobody understands half of them, it’s called confusion.”
4. Discipline Is Better Than Inspiration
Heker, again, said: “Inspiration doesn’t exist; it’s similar to witches in that aspect. Then, when words seem to sing to us in the ear, and we feel like everything we’re writing has the right music, exact rhythm, the precise tension it should have, one can call that privileged state how they like, but the best thing is to release the brakes and let madness loose. It’s beautiful, but we shouldn’t believe that it is the only state in which literature is made. Because we run the risk of not writing more than a page in life.”
A lot, badly, fast, attentively, dispersedly, with a pencil in hand or behind an ear, in the bathroom, in the bus, or under the kitchen table, but read. Something like this is what Roberto Bolaño tried to say in his “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories”: read every possible thing, learn every possible thing, worry little about advice to improve your writing style. The history of literature is your toolbox, an immense tradition of resources and solutions. Sometimes we don’t need to reinvent the wheel: it’s enough to know where to steal it from.
6. Imitation is a Way of Learning
The first item on Horacio Quiroga’s “Decalogue of the perfect storyteller” says: “Believe in a teacher —Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chéjov— as in God himself.” And the third one adds: “Resist imitation as much as you can, but imitate if the influence is too strong. More than anything else, personality development takes long patience». The idea is that in imitation there is always a share of learning because it implies discovering how the thing we’re imitating works. Nobody knows Picasso’s style as well as the forger who could sign with his name.
7. Read Aloud
An excellent way of revising a text is to try reading it aloud. That’s how you will be able to spot what sounds odd, awkward, or a little far-fetched. Nowadays, besides, it’s very easy to record oneself, with which you will be able to hear yourself multiple times and go through the way your writing sounds. You can also use text-to-speech applications, which sound less robotic every day.
8. Synonyms Exist
Borges’s personal argument with synonyms is well-known. He even devoted a few poisonous paragraphs to them in essays like “El idioma de los argentinos,” “La adjetivación” or “El idioma infinito.” The reason for this anger is simple: Borges was as opposed to the unnecessary ostentation of the dictionary as to the belief that two words can be the same. Synonyms have the same meaning, yes, but they are still different words and, therefore, they don’t work in the same way. “Happy,” “joyful,” and “elated” refer to the same feeling, but they can’t be used interchangeably.
9. Spelling Isn’t Important, Grammar Is
When we’re writing, the absence of a comma or confusion between letters don’t matter. Generally, that’s what the word processors are for and, later on, the proofreader. But grammar, the syntactic structure of a language, is a whole different story. We need to know at least the basics: the use of adverbs, tenses, and some collocations. We need to know them, yes, but not necessarily respect them. The literary style can go around standard grammar, but to do it consistently, systematically, and effectively —as William Faulkner or Sara Gallardo did, for instance— we need to know the rules we’re choosing to avoid. When Virginia Woolf abandoned traditional syntax in a novel, she always did so with a good grammar handbook on the desk.
10. Create Your Own Rules
Trust your criteria’s authority, about what you like and dislike. That’s the starting point to improve your personal writing style: a group of more or less systematic whims. Ricardo Piglia always held that a style is nothing more than knowing you had a style. If you want to improve your writing, identify that criteria —your own— and make it a habit.
Translated by: @paulanaominakagawa