After you’ve written a paragraph, have you ever stopped to squint at the words, wondering if you’ve chosen the right ones to convey the mood you intended? Did you manage to craft a distinct voice for your viewpoint character, or does the narrative sound too much like you? Are your commas placed correctly?
All the minute details that contribute to an author’s style can be overwhelming. Maybe you’ve lingered on the tenth resolution of the Christian Storytellers Manifesto: “We resolve to strive for excellence and not settle for mediocrity by developing a competent command of grammar and style, understanding that skilled use of language points to the splendor of God’s created order.” You want to live it out but aren’t sure where to start.
How can you enhance your writing at the sentence level?
We’ve all asked ourselves this question at least once, if not many times, as we try to artfully rearrange twenty-six letters and fourteen punctuation marks to tell stories that are bigger than we are. The obvious answer is practice. The more you write, the better you’ll understand how to leverage the English language.
But “just write” is inadequate advice when you’re looking for specific directions that will lead you toward the excellence you hope to achieve. In response to that problem, I have five suggestions to help you hone your style.
Exercise #1: Mimic a Writer You Love
This is more commonly known as “modeling.” You select a passage (of any length) from a favorite book and rewrite it, changing important words and phrases while maintaining the structure. The activity was a hit with my seventh-grade English students. We took the opening lines from The Hobbit:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
And we reinvented them thus:
In a nest on a cliff there lived a gnome. Not a hairy, feathery, crusty nest, filled with bits of shells, dung, and a stinking odor, nor yet a grassy, stringy, rocky nest with nothing in it to rest your head on or to eat: it was a gnome-nest, and that means cozy.
The goal is to unearth the nuances that captivate you and make an author worth emulating. Writers of any experience level can benefit from this exercise. You can even imitate entire scenes, plots, and so on. I used Frozen as the framework for a novel a few years ago, and it was challenging yet incredibly fun. You might not create an original masterpiece, but you’ll gain invaluable insight into successful storytelling techniques.
Exercise #2: Repair Terrible Writing
We’re drowning in an ocean of popular fiction. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. Sitting in judgment is easy. But turning garbage into gold is not.
Force yourself to identify and correct the weaknesses in a poorly written piece. What would you change and why? How would you show rather than tell? Fix a plot hole? Transform flat characters into realistic and relatable human beings? Tweak the vocabulary to portray the emotion without melodrama?
Pick apart a corny romance novel. You know the kind. Although I can’t recommend diving in too far lest you stumble upon graphic details, you can focus on the first couple chapters. Or, if you’ve been writing for a few years, dig out an old project and revise it. By witnessing and solving others’ (or your own) mistakes, you’ll grow as a writer.
Exercise #3: Keep a Notebook of Great Writing
In the past, school children began their journey into the English language when the teacher assigned them a work of literature to copy by hand. Illustrious men and women also habitually collected sayings and passages that stood out to them. Leonardo daVinci’s famed moleskin notebooks are filled with drawings, inventions, ideas, and exceptional pieces of writing. Ludwig van Beethoven tucked away poetry, literature, and maxims he treasured.
A copybook is not the same as a journal. A journal is where you jot down your random thoughts and emotions, but a copybook is where you intentionally record your findings while reading. The physical act of writing engages your mind and strengthens your memory. You’ll expand your vocabulary and experience the syntax up close, in addition to building a supply of inspiration you can pull from at any time.
Exercise #4: Convert One Form of Writing into Another
When Benjamin Franklin’s father told him his writing lacked eloquence and elegance, he set out to rectify that. One of his training strategies was to turn a story into a poem. He then set this new poem aside and returned to it at a later date to revert it to prose.
Changing a story into a poem (and vice versa) may sound simple, but I’m sure you realize it’s not. If you’re a fiction or nonfiction writer, your attempt will probably result in a terrible poem. If you’re a poet, you may struggle to enlarge verses into scenes. Either way, you’ll stretch your skills. You have to command the language, themes, and symbols in fiction to express them as a poem. And you have to preserve the movement, emotion, and depth of a poem to bring it to life as fiction. Play around with something familiar like Beauty and the Beast or “O Captain! My Captain!” to see what you can create.
Exercise #5: Memorize Poetry
Here at Story Embers, we appreciate poetry. We even published an article series on the value of studying and writing it. But I would encourage you to memorize it as well.
Why? The content you put into your brain will come out again.
In the world of music, the Suzuki method for violin relies heavily on sheer memorization. The student learns a piece by heart and retains it throughout their progressing repertoire. Several years ago, Andrew Pudewa applied this philosophy to a preschool poetry class. Every day began with a recitation of poems before the children committed new ones to memory. Mr. Pudewa is the founder of IEW, a writing program that teaches children by “infusing reliably correct and sophisticated English language patterns into students’ minds.”
When you memorize language patterns, descriptions, metaphors, and symbols in poetry, they marinate in your mind and soul, and you’ll subconsciously draw on them as you write.
Practice Makes (Almost) Perfect
To strive means to fight and struggle—to put forth effort to accomplish a goal. As a writer, your fight and struggle is with words, structure, and grammar. Your effort is time spent writing and rewriting, and writing more. Through constant and varied practice, mastery is within your reach.
What exercises will you try today to stretch yourself?
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.