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This Writing Life: Writing That Doesn’t Drawn Attention to Itself

22 September, 2011

I’ve been reading a book recently that has made me think about writing style, and particularly a style that is so simple it hardly feels like a style at all. You see, this book is a long epic fantasy, twice the length of many things I’ve read recently, and yet I’m going to finish it in half the time it’s taken me to read some of those books. It’s nothing to do with liking the book more either (although it is very good). Instead, I’ve come to realise that the speed at which I’ve read has a lot more to do with the style in which the book is written.

In genre fiction, style isn’t something that gets discussed a great deal. Plot, pace, character – yes. Style – not so much. All books have a style, I think, but there’s something in genre fiction that frequently ensures this particular aspect is overlooked. Why? Well, it seems to me that style is overlooked because it’s supposed to be overlooked in these books; because it is writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Now, of course there are some fantasy books, for example, where the style of the writing is almost as important as the plot. You’re supposed to notice the clever metaphors and words you’ve never heard before (I defy anyone to read an entire China Miéville book without having to look up at least one word in the dictionary).

Having said that, I think most genre fiction leans the other way. We find, instead, stories in which the plot and characters, magic and worldbuilding, are more important. To keep them to the fore of the narrative, the writing style is deliberately simple (simple, not simplistic), with few flourishes and clever devices. In these books, you won’t find yourself stopping to admire a carefully crafted sentence or simile, because you’re not supposed to. Instead, you’ll be up past midnight, desperate to reach the end of the book and find out what happens to these characters, and how they escape from a situation of mortal danger (or how the ‘happy couple’ end up together, or how the mystery is solved etc. etc.).

I’m not saying that having a recognisable style in your writing is a bad thing, nor that you should abandon all words with more than three syllables. However, in genres like fantasy and SF, where suspension of disbelief is so important for the reader, having a style that they can effectively ignore because they’re so invested in the story can be a good thing. Writing that doesn’t draw attention to itself is not the same as poor writing, and it can be one of the most important tools in a fiction writer’s toolkit.

  1. 22 September, 2011 12:45 pm

    I definitely agree. Simple writing rather than simplistic can often be such a relief to read. I notice I read those stories much faster and they are incredibly rewarding. Often I feel that writers get lost in making really crafty sentences that is more about being showing off your ability to make such a sentence rather than for the purpose of the plot/book. At the same time I have read books purely to admire the beauty of the style of writing, the level of complexity is wonderous. Overall, I prefer long books with simple writing and strong plots whereas shorter books I don’t mind more flourished sentences. Great post! (BTW what book are you reading?)

    – Ermisenda

    • 23 September, 2011 11:30 am

      Hi Ermisenda,

      I agree that shorter books with a complex style can be very rewarding. And it’s wonderful to find a book that manages to both have a strong plot and beautiful writing together, but those books are quite a rare find. I think they’re also the ones I remember the longest, though.

      The book I was reading was ‘Irons in the Fire’ by Juliet E. McKenna. It’s about 700 pages long in the copy I have, but I read the whole thing very quickly. It has quite a complex plot and a lot of politics/intrigue, but it’s always easy to follow because the writing style is so clear.

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