How do you create a unique writing ‘style’?

Every author writes in a certain “style.” Style is the choice of vocabulary and phrasing to create an effect that runs through the entire story.

Consider this snippet from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Awakening”:

Marlan was bored with the ultimate boredom that only Utopia can supply. He stood before the great window and stared down at the scuddling clouds, driven by the the gale that was racing past the foothills of the city. Sometimes, through a rent in the billowing white blanket, he could catch a glimpse of lakes and forests and the winding ribbon of the river that flowed through the empty land he now so seldom troubled to visit.

Now compare it to this sample from Joe Haldeman‘s “Angel of Light”:

It began innocently enough. Christmastime and no money. I went down into the cellar and searched deeply for something to give the children. Something they wouldn’t have already found during their hajjes down there.

Both pieces make use of different stylistic techniques to create a certain impression. Clark uses full sentences describing a panoramic scene and repeats words to give a sense of the sweeping ennui facing not only his main character but all of humanity. Haldeman, however, uses short, incomplete sentences to establish the slightly desperate nature of the everyday main character, who is having a conversation with you.

On one level, each author’s style is unique because the words are a product of his own, unique mind. But even a lone author can create vastly different works by changing styles. Pick up a copy of Harlan Ellison’s short story collection and compare the abstract “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman” to his more conversational (but no less symbolic) “Jeffty is Five.” 

There are some basic guidelines for style that can help elevate the author from crude apprentice to respected craftsman. For example, varying sentence lengths, using active rather than passive voice, and avoiding cliches all make one’s writing better. Recognizing these issues is important because style can be the difference between getting published or receiving a rejection letter. During future entries about style, we’ll discuss those and other topics.