How to Write with Style

How to Write Short, Direct (and Stylish) Sentences

Story: “Rooey” by Kelly Luce, published by The Literary Review

Great sentences—and great lines of poetry—often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. The speed of those leaps is what gives the story its style. The sentences are not long or grammatically complex. They do not suggest but, rather, state things outright. Very often, beginning writers believe that good sentences are overwritten and overly subtle. The truth is usually quite the opposite.

How to Use Unusual Words

Novel: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell, excerpted at Guernica

Someone might ask, ‘Why are you talking that way?’ But you would have accomplished a sometimes-difficult feat. That person would paying attention to you, trying to figure out, ‘Why is he talking that way?’ or ‘Who is she that she uses words like that?’ Part of the battle of fiction is to get the reader to wake up and pay attention. Using unusual words can do that.

How to Control Narrative Pace with Sentence Structure

Novel: Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois

If the plot of Cartwheel pushes us forward, making us want to turn the page, the sentences slow us down, directing our attention to nuances. The sentences are not long or difficult to read, but they are structurally complex, filled with interruptions and asides. Notice how many of the sentences in the first paragraph do not move in a straight line.

How to Find a Story’s Tone

Story: “Feature Development for Social Networking” by Benjamin Rosenbaum, published at

Some stories have been told countless times. Yet, as writers, we often feel compelled to take another crack at them. So how do we make our stories different? Sometimes the answer is to find an unexpected tone.

How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

Story: “The Skin Thing” by Adrian Van Young, published at Electric Literature

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

How to Use Sensory Details

Essay: “Porkistan” by Syed Ali Haider, published at The Butter

Too often, when we try to use all five senses, the sentences feel forced and unnatural. Some smells are difficult to explain. Or, the smell is easy, but to describe the other senses takes too much room on the page. So, how do we move beyond the descriptions that are easiest, that first come to mind? How do we move to descriptions that are more imaginative and interesting?

How to Write Sentences that Surprise the Reader

Story Collection: Our Secret Life in the Movies, published by A Strange Object

It’s undoubtedly true that sentences don’t make much sense without a story to hang them on, but it’s also true that stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them.

How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing

Essay: “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon, published, in part, in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?

When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?

How to Write Surprising Descriptions

Essay: “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters” by Amy Leach, published in The Iowa Review

At some point in your story or novel or essay, you’ll need to write a memorable description, something better than red or big or happy. So, you start free writing and brainstorming to find the right words, but they’re all variations on the usual and expected. You want to find something new and startling, but how?

How to Write Self-Conscious Prose

Story: “How to Die” by Jaime Netzer, published in Black Warrior Review and republished in Litragger

When it comes to first-person narration, a writer’s voice often becomes a consciously public act. You can see this clearly in Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried, in stories like “How to Tell a True War Story,” when the narrator says things like, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before—many times many versions—but here’s what actually happened.” The narrator is performing for his audience, and the effect is powerful; as a reader, you can feel yourself leaning forward into the prose.

How to Stretch Present Action

Novel: Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen, published by Graywolf

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demandingand challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

How to Reveal Character Interiority through Action

Novel: We the Animals by Justin Torres, published by Mariner Books

All characters think and feel, and, as writers, it’s important to convey the texture of those interior worlds. Some stories are, in fact, as much about what happens inside a character’s head as what happens outside of it. The problem, though, is that it’s tempting to describe thoughts and feelings in ways that kill drama and tension. Sentences that begin with “She thought _____” or “He felt ____” risk doing just that. Everyone writes these sentences occasionally, and they undoubtedly appear in great novels. That said, when we search for alternative ways to describe a character’s mindset, we often stretch our prose in surprising, engaging ways.

How to Describe a Character’s Sense of the World

Novel: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

When I was an undergrad, one of my writing teachers lamented that too many novelists were trying to write books that could easily be filmed. A good novel, she said, moved differently than film; it created a kind of narrative space that could not be captured on a screen. And what filled that space? Human thought. This isn’t the only view of what constitutes good writing, and it’s probably not even a majority opinion, but it does suggest an interesting question. If a scene that can be filmed—i.e. one with dialogue and action and subtext to inform both—is not the only approach to a scene, then what else is there?

How to Escape the Trap of Ideological Language

Essay Anthology: Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, Edited by Ru Freeman, published by O/R Books

Our political beliefs are often revealed by the terms we use: illegal or undocumentedunborn child or fetusmigrant or refugee, terrorist or gunman. These words color our perception and are consciously chosen: black lives matter or all lives matter. The real danger comes when we forget that these terms were created for a purpose and that we’ve chosen to use them. When they become as essential to how we view the world as floor or sky, then we’ve become victims of doublethink. Writers are as susceptible to doublethink as anyone else, and so it’s crucial to be thoughtful about what terms we use—in fiction as well as in nonfiction. The choices matter. After all, we craft narratives that shape how our readers see the world. Using words thoughtlessly can lead to narratives that unintentionally reflect a particular rhetoric more than any reality.

How to Raise the Level of Analysis in an Essay

Essay: “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” by Sarah Smarsh, published in The New Yorker

We enjoy a wealth of choices for news and analysis because of online magazines, which is good for readers (more niche writing and unexpected angles) and good for writers (more opportunities for publication). However, the abundance of cultural, political, and social analysis has changed our expectations for analysis. It’s not enough to report the facts or make an insightful point. The best essays make a kind of Malcolm-Gladwell leap that moves from close-frame analysis (what is happening right here, in this specific instance) to the big picture. Many writers attempt this leap but with mixed results. There is an entire genre of essay, for example, that critiques the peculiar, occasionally insightful, occasionally offensive leaps made by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

How to Write Sentences that Offer Unexpected Views

Nonfiction: Two Facebook posts by Natashia Deón, published at Rockwell’s Camera Phone

I recently heard a discussion on a panel of writers, editors, and agents about the difference between literary and non-literary fiction. Someone said, as they always do when this question is posed, that literary fiction puts more focus on sentences, that it’s more interested in language. I agree with this statement, mostly, but it’s also vague. What does it mean to be interested in language? What do great sentences look like? The answer isn’t as clear as we’d like to think. Does language mean big words, as my freshman composition students like to think? Does it mean “poetic” language (whatever that means), as I often heard as a MFA student? Here’s another possibility: literary language is active on a sentence level. The very structure of the sentences elicits a response from the reader—not an intellectual response, though that may be the case as well, but an uncontrolled grunt or gasp. Good sentences catch our attention.

How to Develop Rapport with the Reader

Story: “Stealing Orlando” by David James Puissant, published at Newfound

A few years ago, the guest editor for The Best American Short Stories (I think it was Alice Sebold) wrote that she chose the stories while sitting on a plane. If a story could hold her attention in that hectic environment, then it was a good one. If it couldn’t, then it wasn’t. It’s true that certain kinds of quiet stories might not be great reads for an airplane, but it’s also true that most of us make up our minds about a story by the end of the first page or two. So, how can we make our own stories grab the reader? I’ve written before about writing quick-starting opening paragraphs. But there are other ways as well.

How to Write with Negative Capability

Essay: Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)” by Joni Tevis, published in Orion

One of the most famous terms in literature is negative capability, coined by the poet John Keats. It’s so important that it even gets its own Wikipedia entry—not bad for a term that Keats mentioned once, and only once, and not in a poem or essay but in a letter to his brothers. So, if it’s such a big deal, then we probably ought to know what it means and how to use it or make it happen in our writing.

How to Use a Light Touch in Heavy Moments

Essay: “Cotton” by Joe Jiménez

One of the most difficult things to learn in prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is how much certain passages ought to weigh. There will be moments that feel heavy, and so we write them heavy: longer, more drawn out, with more forceful words and images. These are the sentences, we tell ourselves, that people are going to quote. And yet when we return to those passages in the revision process, they don’t read right. They feel like they’re trying too hard—or not hard enough. We’re often not sure which, only certain that something is not working. It’s often the case that less is more in prose, and sometimes the most important moments in a story need the lightest touch.

How to Warm Up Your Imagination for Metaphor

Essay: “The Lava Lamp of Pain” by Sonya Huber

When I was starting out as a writer, I would sit at my computer and think, “Okay, now it’s time for a metaphor.” I didn’t know what the image would be, but I had the strong sense that some kind of cool language thing was needed in that moment on the page. So I’d start brainstorming, something like this: “He was so angry. He was a…gorilla…tornado…freight train.” And so on. Metaphor was not my strong suit. Later, in grad school, I would read poetry by the Surrealists and understand that I had, until then, chained my imagination too tightly to the thing I was trying to describe. My metaphors were either too predictable or not actually metaphors (He was so angry…he was a really angry guy). I needed a way of thinking about metaphoric language that could give me enough energy to break away from the most immediate connotations of an image in order to explore less obvious aspects of it.

How to Write Expansively Instead of In a Straight Line

Memoir: Riverine by Angela Palm

In my own writing, the number one sign that I’ve lost track of the narrative is that I become locked into a minute-by-minute recitation of what’s happening in the story. Even if the action is eventful, the telling of it feels tedious. Good prose should seem light on its feet, not plodding; expansive, not narrow; all-inclusive like Borges’ aleph or Whitman’s lines “what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Perhaps that sounds a bit high-minded, but it’s a feat of mechanics, something that any writer can try on the page.

How to Use Showing and Telling in a Personal Essay

Essay: “As a mom, I couldn’t afford to fall apart after my divorce. Then running saved me.” by Melissa Stephenson

The personal essay genre can be found across the Internet and in print magazines, and because of these many outlets, the form has given writers from many different backgrounds and experiences the chance to tell their stories. These many voices have led to a lot of innovation within the genre, yet when I teach structure in the personal essay, I try to show how almost every essay contains certain elements: a narrative, sure, but also passages revealing context (explaining how the reader should understand the narrative) and emotional importance (showing why the narrative matters to the people involved). The question becomes this: How does a writer weight each of these elements and arrange them? What is the focus of the essay?

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