The first thing to know about style is that how YOU write is your style. In the long run, trying to copy, imitate, or mimic another author’s style will be ineffective, because it’s difficult to maintain the façade of being another author. And besides, it’s then not YOU who’s writing.
So, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, a fundamental rule is “be yourself”. Unless it’s in dialog or some esoteric academic work, don’t use words you wouldn’t use in your everyday speech. Believe it or not, your readers will see through the sham.
Once you’re comfortable writing from within yourself, you need to be consistent—the second fundamental rule for effective writing.
Consistent style prevents presentation from getting in the way of content. ~Steven Pinker
But what does “consistency” mean? Consistency creates a kind of order to one’s writing, which means that readers can easily and smoothly follow a continuous thread of text. There are several areas in writing where consistency shows up. Let’s look at a few.
Consistency of Person—This area deals with what person you choose to write in. If you write in the first person, you’re talking as a participant in the text, and you’re speaking directly to your readers. This tends to be very revealing, which can make some people uncomfortable. In addition, many of us were taught to avoid saying ‘I’ over and over again, sounding egocentric. If you write in the third person, you’re talking as a narrator or observer, which many people feel safer with. It puts an arm’s length between you and your readers. You can also write in the second person, though this is less common.
Consistency of Tense—What tense you write in depends a great deal on what you’re writing. If the work is fiction, it can be told in present tense, so readers observe the action in the here-and-now. Or you can write in the past tense, describing something that happened some time ago. Obviously, tenses can be mixed (carefully) as in a flashback or a narrative that goes from some time in the past to the present moment. In non-fiction, tense is less important, because most of the text tends to be descriptive and time-independent, unless, for example, some process of discovery is being described. In any case, effective writers carefully avoid confusing their audience by injudiciously switching back and forth. So, it’s important to keep tense as consistent as possible.
Consistency of Voice—You might want to talk to the reader in a casual voice. Or you might choose to be more formal. Either approach, or any approach, is acceptable, as long as you don’t mix two or three and end up confusing your reader.
So, before you start writing, or as you’re doing your first complete read-through, think about consistency of the above parameters, as well as the scenes you’re setting, characters you’re describing, length of sentences and paragraphs, storyline, data presentation order and flow, and so on and so on. You want your reader’s journey through your book, article, or paper to be as smooth as possible. Consistency is like the fine or extra-fine sandpaper on your finished project.
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