Writing with Styleby David A. Hall, past president of Mapletree Publishing Company
While style isn't the number one ingredient of great fiction, it is one of the easiest factors for a publisher to evaluate. An experienced editor can look over your manuscript and, within a few minutes, tell if you're a talented writer or not.
The difference between skilled writing and amateurish writing is a complete difference in mindset. The amateur writer tells a story. The skilled writer draws a reader into the story and touches the reader's emotions. It's a completely different approach to writing.
Let me illustrate with an example of amateurish writing followed by an example of skilled writing. Here's a sample of what some people might write:
Here I've sketched a setting, but I have done nothing to engage the reader. I've merely begun to tell a story. Compare this with the same story as told by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby:
The difference between this example and the earlier one is that in the second example, F. Scott Fitzgerald draws the reader into the story. In the first, the reader is a passive consumer of the story who is told how to evaluate a character. In the second, the reader's mind is engaged because the author simply illustrates the character and let's the reader draw conclusions about him.
The amateurish writer thinks up a story and then tells it. The skilled writer takes the story one giant step further and tries to think how to show the reader what the character is like, how to touch the reader's mind and the reader's emotions. It's more work, it takes more skill, and it is much more satisfying for the reader.
For another example, see which way of presenting a story draws the reader's emotions into the story:
Compare that with this:
Again, the first example treats the reader as a passive consumer. The second tries to paint a picture that will touch the reader's emotions. The first example tells the reader explicitly what is going on. The second merely hints at it and lets the reader fill in the blanks, so to speak.
Many aspects of writing style can be tied to this one principle. For example, a skilled writer pays very close attention to the point of view of the story. She will realize that the reader needs to come to identify with one of the characters and will create a certain level of emotional intimacy with that character. The amateurish writer will often have no concept of point of view and in telling the story will bounce around from one character to another, telling the inner thoughts of one character and then jumping to another. The skilled writer will imagine herself in the shoes of one of the characters and will try to help the reader feel what that character feels, drawing the reader's emotions into the story.
Some people believe that great writers are born, not made. While I believe that there are innate talents that come into play with great writers, it is still a skill that can be taught and enhanced. And there are books and courses that teach these writing skills.
If you're a writer who wants to write great novels, then you need to cultivate these skills. I would highly recommend the book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Library Journal calls this "a superb tutorial for anyone wanting to learn from pros how to polish fiction writing with panache." Sol Stein, author of Stein on Writing, said, "My students—including the published novelists—ought to read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers once a year, the Show and Tell chapter even more often."
There are other good books about writing. Study, apply, and go back and study some more. It takes intensity and practice to learn and implement these writing techniques.
Many aspiring authors submit manuscripts and are very anxious about their grammar, punctuation or other small points. It may surprise them to learn that we often accept manuscripts that have poor grammar or spelling. Faults of grammar, punctuation, and so forth, are easy to fix. We routinely copyedit all our manuscripts and and correct those errors. But characterization, point of view, showing versus telling, proportion, drawing the reader into the story—if a manuscript falls short in those areas it may doom it to the rejection pile. On the other hand, if a manuscript can touch our emotions with characters that are so real that they almost jump out of the pages, we're guaranteed to take a serious look at it.