How to Develop a Writing Style: A Guide for Freelance Writers
The Question of Style
It's important to understand how to develop a writing style if you want a successful career as a freelance writer. Your style is the way you express ideas in writing. Your word choice and sentence structure both contribute to your personal writing style.
Good Writing Style is Invisible
The first aim of any writer should be clarity. Strive to make your writing easy to read. From the reader's perspective, your writing style should be invisible. It's always worth reading your work aloud or recording it and listening back. Your sentences should flow in a logical manner, your vocabulary should be tailored to your subject and readership, and your writing sound attractive to the ear.
Each Writer Has a Unique Style
No two writers have the same style. While I would encourage you to study the style of those writers you most admire, and whose work you enjoy, always avoid trying to imitate another author. Once the basic rules of clear writing and good grammar are second nature, you will develop your unique writing style.
Developing a writing style takes time. Different writers will "find their voice" at different speeds. For a few it will come fast and for most it may take weeks, months, or even years. You shouldn't become overanxious about style. But it’s worth bearing in mind as you progress. One of the most exciting things any editor can discover, and will be keen to buy, is a new voice with a fresh and original style.
As with all skills, style and voice can only develop with persistent practice. The key to success as a freelance writer is to keep writing and submitting work, listening to critiques, and striving to improve your writing. Your particular voice as a writer is not "discovered". It comes with hard work and time. Be patient as you learn how to develop a writing style of your own.
The 5 Cs
While no-one can teach writing style, five distinct qualities distinguish good writing from bad. More leeway may exist when writing fiction, but as a freelance non-fiction writer or journalist, these five qualities are well worth the time you give to understand and practice them. They may be the difference between a rejection and a sale. In the trade they’re called “the 5 Cs”.
Let's take a look at each in turn.
Correctness applies both to the content of your work and the way you write. You must check your facts, use accurate description, and make sure your grammar is faultless. Many new writers disregard the principle of correctness, particularly in grammar, because they fear it will stifle their writing style. The opposite is true. Proper use of grammar and syntax provides the stable launch pad from which your creativity rocket may lift off toward the outer limits of what you can achieve.
Conciseness is not synonymous with brevity. Many long-form articles upward of 5000 words may still be concise. When your writing is concise, it means that you keep clear focus on what you're trying to say and you say it in the simplest possible terms. Avoid irrelevant facts and repetition. Cut out every unnecessary word and phrase. Conciseness relates to the third quality of good writing style, clarity.
Clarity means that your writing should be unambiguous. Give your reader every detail necessary for them to understand your argument or the theme of your piece. Use language appropriate to your readership. Avoid the temptation to show off the range and extent of your vocabulary. Never use a complex word where a simpler one will do. A common error among aspiring writers is to overuse the dictionary and the thesaurus.
As Jorge Luis Borges has pointed out:
“The first thing a young writer sets out to do is to show his readers that he possesses a dictionary.”
Clarity means making sure you're not that writer.
The key to clear writing lies not only in your word choices, but in your thinking. The clearest possible idea of what you want to say, why, and how you mean to say it, is vital before you set pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard. I don't recommend "writing by the seat of your pants". Planning always produces more concise, clearer writing than not planning. Good planning is essential to the fourth quality of good style, coherence.
The first thing a young writer sets out to do is to show his readers that he possesses a dictionary.— Jorge Luis Borges
For your work to be coherent you must present ideas in a logical order. The well-worn adage that a piece of writing should have "a beginning, middle, and an end" refers to coherence. If you are writing an opinion piece, it's important to explain and defend your opinion in a series of arguments which your reader can follow without difficulty. When writing journalism, you must lay out the facts and your analysis of them in logical order. If writing an explanation piece, the same principles apply. Making sure your work is coherent will help your reader understand what you want to say. It will also support the last of the 5 Cs, completeness.
Completeness means you start what you finish. If your piece raises questions, you must answer them. If information is needed for your reader to understand your argument, you must offer it. But it also means sticking only to the necessary facts. Diversions and trivia can undermine the structural completeness of your writing and confuse the reader.
How to Develop a Writing Style of Your Own
Learning how to develop a writing style is important. But many new writers worry far too much about it. Once you grasp what style is and set your mind to achieve it, your aim is best served by getting on with the business of writing. There is nothing mystical or obscure about writing style. Don't try too hard to achieve it. One of the greatest dangers facing any new writer learning how to develop a writing style is self-consciousness. Self-conscious writing is clumsy and stilted. Try to keep the 5 Cs in mind and let your writing style develop naturally.
The 5 Cs Revisited
What it means in a nutshell
Accurate information and good grammar
Saying exactly what you mean
Simple, unambiguous language
Thoughts and arguments in logical order
Give necessary information
Learn to Write in Different Styles
Having understood and developed your own writing style it becomes easier to write with conviction in other styles and voices. As a freelance writer you will often produce work tailored to specific markets. Each publication has its own branded voice. Many websites, newspapers, journals, and magazines publish their own style guides. If you want to sell your work to them, you must study their guidelines and follow them. Learning how to tailor your writing to each market is an essential skill for a successful freelance career. The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Best, Bella, and The People's Friend all have very different editorial styles.
Whichever publication you wish to write for, time spent studying a few recent editions will reward you with higher acceptance rates than hope and guesswork. Learn to be versatile in your writing, to manipulate words without sacrificing naturalness, and you will have a successful career as a freelance writer. Always strive to improve your writing. Read and absorb the elements of already successful authors’ styles. Never imitate, but allow your reading to influence your own writing while aiming to produce work whose style and voice is unique to you.
My Tips on How to Develop a Writing Style
Writing Style and Success
Once you’ve mastered your writing style, your individuality as a writer and your authorial identity will shine through even when writing according to guidelines. Your writing will become easier and more enjoyable to read. Above all, as your style develops, you will notice a significant increase in sales.
© 2017 Austin Hackney