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How to Develop Your Own Writing Style: READ

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the most. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write.” - William Faulkner

The key to writing well? Reading.

It is often said that the best writers are the most avid readers. Why? Well, consuming literature of all styles helps you become a better wordsmith: it gives you something to learn from, analyse and aspire to. Even the great American novelist, William Faulkner, urged students at the University of Mississippi to “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the most. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

Here at Oxbridge Editing, we need no convincing: as self-proclaimed bibliophiles, we understand that every time we open a book (and that’s often) we’re also embarking on an education – of style, skill, technique and tone. And we’re in good company. Many famous writers honed their own unique voice by first reading, then replicating, the style of other authors: Virgil practiced with Homeric passages before writing The Aeneid, Daniel Defoe imitated John Bunyan before writing Robinson Crusoe, and Mark Twain drew inspiration from Daniel Defoe himself before penning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In fact, learning to write through reading is an ancient technique, which Roman rhetoricians called imitatio (‘imitation’). This involved not only mimicking specific writers’ styles, but also trying to say something in a variety of different ways. The early Renaissance writer Erasmus, for instance, in his widely-used rhetorical guide De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum, showed how one sentence – “Your letter has delighted me very much.” – might be written in 150 different styles, from his own exhaustive hypothetical sentences to those which imitate a writer one enjoys.

Just like an athlete who trains hard in the hope of achieving their moment of glory, or the singer who practices the music of those who have found success before them, so too the writer – be they student, professional or budding novelist – must read in order to find originality. Poetry, for example, will tune your ear to rhythms, novels will educate you on plot and structure, and short stories will help you understand the importance of characterisation and setting. In short, reading encourages writers to experiment with vocabulary and language, ultimately helping you write more effectively.

Finding your unique voice won’t happen overnight – the trick is to try out different points of view, styles and tones until you uncover your own. So pick up a book, and start learning to write.

If you’re stuck in a writing rut, here a few tips from the Oxbridge Editing team on how to imitate your favourite authors:

  • Keep a journal. Every time you find an interesting passage, write it down.
  • Make a note of what you like – and dislike – about every book you read: the conversational tone, the attention to detail, the emotional discourse, the intimate and engaging riffs? Write down how you feel and how the author has achieved this. Could you do it better?
  • Play around with your writing and give yourself some freedom to experiment. Then trust your gut to tell you whether you’re being genuine or derivative or phony.
  • Study the style of a great writer then try and re-model it. By mixing and matching a variety of voices, you will learn to craft a narrative that is distinctly your own.
  • Read voraciously. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading, just read!

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