If you’re a creative of any kind, then you’ve experienced the intense desire to be special. Not just special to a partner, or a child, but special to the world. Special at what you do.
Part of the reason people create is so they can leave their mark on the world, so they don’t disappear into oblivion when they die. So they are remembered.
Don’t you want to be remembered like William Shakespeare? Jane Austen? Michael Jackson? Marilyn Monroe?
They are remembered because they were revolutionaries. They changed the game for playwriting, literature, music, and acting. They created art that had never been created before.
We all have that innate goal of creating something groundbreaking. It’s just the “how” that gets us stuck.
For writers in particular, it’s the epic stories and original styles that set the famous apart from the forgotten. Authors like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Zora Neale Hurston, and Agatha Christie created their own techniques that tapped into their experiences, the time period, and what new ways they could manipulate their language.
Hopefully, by understanding the history of these authors and how they developed their own unique styles, you will be able to apply it to your own writing and create a style that’s all your own.
Yes, we are starting with the man himself. Ernest Hemingway. Quite possibly one of the most well-known authors of all time. While I personally am not a huge fan of his work, Hemingway changed the game in a major way. He pioneered concise, objective prose in fiction—which had, up until then, primarily been used in journalism.
She’s just having a bad time. The initial labor is usually protracted. She’s only having a bad time. Afterward we’d say what a bad time and Catherine would say it wasn’t really so bad. But what if she should die? She can’t die. Yes, but what if she should die? She can’t, I tell you. Don’t be a fool. It’s just a bad time.
-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
It’s no surprise that Hemingway learned this direct style as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. But his preference for objective writing was strengthened after he returned from World War I. While 19th century European (read: English) writing styles had been generally revered and imitated by authors all over the world, the war put a sour taste in the mouths of many creatives.
In the 1920s, immediately after the war, a group of American authors who became “The Lost Generation” rejected the flowery, descriptive language of European literature in favor of straightforward, to the point stories. Hemingway spearheaded this movement by publishing novels and short stories using “The Iceberg Theory.” He believed the facts of the story, which appeared on the surface, hinted at the symbolism that was lying underneath—which didn’t have to be explained.
His style is still widely used by authors and journalists alike, and he even has an editing app named after him!
Every single one of the nine authors I’ll address in this article used their experiences to inform their writing style. But this was especially true of Hemingway. His style was informed by his time as a journalist and his disillusionment after the war.
It’s hard for your experiences not to inform the art you create. While we all want to be as brilliant and succinct as Hemingway, if your experiences have influenced a specific writing style, don’t deny yourself that.
Perhaps you grew up reading poetry, so you have a tendency to write descriptive, symbolic language. Write what you know and be yourself. That’s what Hemingway did.
James Joyce may not be as famous as Hemingway in America, but he is Ireland’s pride and joy. His experimental style made him an influence in the modernist avant-garde writing movement of the early 20th century. His novels are defined by their elaborate stream-of-consciousness style, which is often very hard to follow by novice readers, as it recounts every thought and action of the narrator in exquisite detail.
I took off all my things with the blinds down after my hours dressing and perfuming and combing it like iron or some kind of thick crowbar standing all the time he must have eaten oysters I think a few dozen he was in great singing voice no I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up…
– James Joyce, Ulysses
I was once warned not to read Ulysses without an encyclopedia and a dictionary on hand. Joyce’s seminal work contains more vocabulary words than the entire Shakespeare canon. Furthermore, his final book, Finnegans Wake, is considered to be one of the most difficult works of fiction ever written in the English language.
Joyce was known to be extremely intelligent, studying Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante at a very young age. He was also known to speak 17 languages, including Sanskrit, Arabic, and Greek. It is possible that his incredible knowledge of language influenced his unique vocabulary, and that his interest in philosophy and the many different styles of literature he had read created an amalgamation of techniques that resulted in his stream-of-consciousness writing.
If you had that much knowledge in your head, it’d be hard to contain all your thoughts, too!
How you were educated is also a huge deciding factor in what writing style you will develop. If you were taught to use ornate, descriptive language, then it will be a pretty hard habit to break. If you spent most of your childhood reading Hemingway (in which case, are you okay?), then you may be more likely to write concise stories.
Your major in college—or if you went to college—is also a huge contributing factor. If you studied literature, your writing will be flowery and contain a lot of symbolism. If you studied science or business, you’ll get to the point pretty quickly.
Joyce developed his style from reading copious amounts of literature and studying an insane number of languages. Nobody is saying you have to learn another language to refine your writing style, but definitely draw upon what you learned in school.
I was first exposed to Franz Kafka in high school when my English teacher assigned The Metamorphosis, a story about a man who suddenly wakes up as a giant, cockroach-like creature. I was then assigned another Kafka novel, The Trial, when I was in college. In both instances, I was confused and disturbed by this German novelist’s writing, but couldn’t deny that I hadn’t read anything like it before.
He would have used his arms and his hands to push himself up; but instead of them he only had all those little legs continuously moving in different directions, and which he was moreover unable to control. If he wanted to bend one of them, then that was the first one that would stretch itself out; and if he finally managed to do what he wanted with that leg, all the others seemed to be set free and would move about painfully. “This is something that can’t be done in bed,” Gregor said to himself, “so don’t keep trying to do it.”
– Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Any time a creative piece explores existentialism and feelings of helplessness, it is called “Kafkaesque.” Kafka revolutionized surrealist, nightmarish writing in contemporary settings. He often wrote about bureaucracies overpowering people in bizarre ways, like through a trial that is held without a clear crime that has been committed.
His style was influenced by his upbringing as a Jewish man in late 19th century Germany, as a socialist and possible anarchist, and as someone with deep-seated mental health issues, which caused him to be withdrawn and skeptical of those around him—elements that are prominent in his novels.
While he wasn’t popular while he was alive, many writers and filmmakers have adapted his style to their own works of science fiction and horror.
Your writing style, like Kafka’s, will also be informed by your personal beliefs and how you interpret/deal with emotion. Kafka’s writing reflected his anti-establishment philosophies and overall skepticism. He also had a strange, almost grotesque idea of how people perceived him. So, he wrote about an insect man.
If you’re not good at expressing emotions in face-to-face situations, you may opt to do it in writing. And, if you’re a highly emotional person like me, your writing may be the complete opposite … snarky and generally devoid of honest emotions (you gotta take a break from it all somehow).
Your perception of the world, and your identity, will be pivotal in creating a style that is unique to you and no one else.
Mary Shelley grew up in an environment perfect for nurturing a brilliant writer. Her father, William Godwin, was a philosopher, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a prolific journalist and advocate for women’s rights. She was primped and primed for literary greatness from birth. And then she married Percy Shelley, a famous poet in the Age of Romanticism.
There’s a rumor that Frankenstein was created because of a bet between Mary Shelley, her husband, and Lord Byron. No one can quite confirm this story, but the fact remains that many women did write novels in spite of men, who said they couldn’t. Many 18th and 19th century works by women were direct responses to novels that men have written. Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, as well as Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, were responses to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, respectively.
Shelley’s writing style was influenced by the romanticism she observed in her husband’s writing, and the styles perpetuated by Gothic literature. She also infused her writing with philosophical questions, which she learned from her father, and raw emotion, which she experienced as a result of the early death of her mother, and which she could express only through writing.
There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand. I am practically industrious — painstaking, a workman to execute with perseverance and labour — but besides this there is a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore.
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Shelley, much like Kafka, wrote with an awareness of her emotions; anger, fear, sadness, and even emotions that she couldn’t quite understand. Frankenstein was written to answer the question: what would happen if a scientist took things too far? She also tapped into feelings of unfamiliarity within the self and the environment.
Exploring how you deal with emotions and questions of morality will help you establish a clear voice and position in your writing. That, paired with your experiences and outside influences, will get you in the same writing mindset as Shelley.
Another well-known and prolific writer, Agatha Christie published over 60 literary works and is considered to be the master of contemporary detective novels. Her style was heavily influenced by her time as a nurse in World War I, and her personal interest in archeology.
Mentions of war, or plots related to the war, often appear in her novels, and she used the knowledge she acquired as a nurse to inform her mysteries. She utilized a variety of poisons to carry out the murders in her stories, and used the psychological trauma of war and war recovery to deepen the emotional connection between the audience and her characters.
Her interest in archaeology resulted in ancient artifacts and archaeologists being heavily featured in her novels, often containing heavily symbolic meaning within the storylines.
“It’s those little figures, sir. In the middle of the table. The little china figures. Ten of them, there were. I’ll swear to that, ten of them,” sputters Mr. Rogers as he realizes that after the deaths of Marston and Mrs. Rogers, the number has been reduced to eight.
– Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None
While Christie’s novels border on formulaic, they were not considered to be so at the time of their creation. Many mystery writers try to mimic her style to no avail. There’s only one Christie.
As I said before, write what you know. Christie was into archeology, so she frequently included it in her mysteries. Her use of china dolls to represent the remaining characters showed her passion for ancient objects that symbolized life and death.
Do you have a hobby? Extensive knowledge about a certain topic? Allow those things to inform what and how you write. Your interests will be unique to you, and therefore unique to your writing. I’m a huge literary history nerd, so I wrote this article. It was a match made in heaven.
Zora Neale Hurston may not be quite as well known as the authors I’ve referenced above, but her style is one of the most unique and important styles that I’ve read.
Hurston was born, and grew up, in the post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights South. The Jim Crow era. She spent most of her childhood in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated into the United States. She later described Eatonville as a place where African Americans could live freely and as they wanted—independent of white society and without pervasive racism.
Her experiences and culture are what contributed to her writing style, which could be described as rhythmic and lyrical. She wrote in colloquial Southern dialects that mimicked the language she grew up hearing. Furthermore, since many African Americans were illiterate prior to the Reconstruction Era, they told stories through song and speech. Hurston’s lyrical writing reflects that kind of storytelling and the hymns she recited as the daughter of a Baptist preacher.
Listen, Sam, if it was nature, nobody wouldn’t have tuh look out for babies touchin’ stoves, would they? ’Cause dey just naturally wouldn’t touch it. But dey sho will. So it’s caution. Naw it ain’t, it’s nature, cause nature makes caution. It’s de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fact is it’s de onliest thing God every made. He made nature and nature made everything else.
– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Her strong connection to her heritage and her unwavering dedication to uplifting black writers and readers made her a pioneer of African American literature and the Harlem Renaissance.
Writing has always had cultural significance. It is utilized during revolutions, protests, times of oppression, and times of peace. It also reflects the differences in the many cultures around the world and preserves traditions that may be lost over time. Your writing style may be a way to connect with your heritage, or a way to explore your identity, as with Hurston.
If using colloquialisms or slang feels natural to you, then don’t be afraid to make that a characteristic of your writing.
A true revolutionary, Hunter S. Thompson believed in a no-bullshit attitude when it came to writing, while also greatly exaggerating events to make them more entertaining. He was quite the character.
Thompson is often credited with the creation of “gonzo” journalism, which is journalism without objectivity. While he originally studied authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, he soon discovered that objectivity just wasn’t for him. Thompson would insert himself into the stories he’d write, if not physically, then emotionally—often using his experiences and feelings on the topic to color his writing. His form of journalism often blurred the lines between fact and fiction.
One of his most famous pieces came from his time living as a biker of the Hells Angels. He wrote about his experiences, even when they made him out to be ugly, for the purposes of exposing the hypocrisy and corruption of society.
Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing. But nobody can handle that other trip—the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into Circus Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his mind. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Much like Hemingway, Thompson relied on his experiences to inform his writing. Except he did something a little more … unconventional. Thompson put himself in situations that would give him unique experiences to write about. He joined a biker gang, did drugs in Vegas, and ran for sheriff of a little town in Colorado.
If you feel you have a lack of experience, do what Thompson did and take a few risks. Putting yourself out there will give you a wealth of material and expose you to different perspectives you may not have considered before. Not ready to join a biker gang? Maybe hike the Pacific Crest Trail like Cheryl Strayed did for Wild. Or go skydiving!
Open yourself up to new experiences and your writing will thank you for it.
Toni Morrison is one of the most respected contemporary American writers. She’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, and oh yeah, the Nobel Prize in Literature.
She had a tumultuous childhood, her parents deliberately setting fire to their home when she was just two years old. Nevertheless, they raised her to be driven, intelligent, and aware of her heritage. She was an ambitious student, who read the likes of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy when she was very young.
Her writing style is influenced by her African American culture, her life experiences, and the historical significance of the time period she grew up in. She uses modern conventions like varied sentence structures, descriptive analogies, and historical references to ground the reader in the time period. Her writing has always been accessible to the masses, while still being incredibly complex and poignant.
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
As I mentioned with Hurston, writing and culture have gone hand in hand since the written word was created. However, unlike Hurston, Morrison keeps to contemporary writing conventions.
Research and authenticity are all well and good, but beware of being too committed to your art. Your style should be both true to you and true to your time. If you try mimicking Hurston’s style today, you’d better be impeccable at it or it’s going to flop.
Morrison knows that she can represent her identity and culture in a way that is accessible to contemporary audiences, while still respectful of the historical significance behind her words.
When writing about sensitive topics, always be cautious as to how it will be read by others and how they may process it. Be honest with yourself, of course, but also consider who you’re writing for.
When I told my mom I was writing this article, she said, “Are you going to talk about JK Rowling? You have to talk about her.” So, Mom, this is for you … but also because Rowling does actually demonstrate a style of writing that is important to consider (since, you know, she’s a billionaire author).
Rowling’s writing style is not often analyzed because it falls under “commercial fiction,” rather than literary fiction. Literary critics don’t tend to spend time analyzing works that aren’t doing anything experimental with their writing style. Commercial fiction is transparent in its prose and its intent—to entertain and to tell a good story. Its main focus is on pleasing the audience.
Rowling wrote Harry Potter for children. The main characters began their journey at 11 years old. She obviously was not creating some profound literary masterpiece. She knew what audience she wanted to write for and she went for it.
She drew upon her knowledge of classical literature and languages to build a world around the idea, but otherwise, she wrote an accessible work of fiction that could be read by as many people as possible. Her style definitely reflects her education and background, and the idea may be considered revolutionary, but her writing style is certainly not.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.
– JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
What makes Rowling so successful is her ability to reach her intended audience. As I mentioned with Morrison, your style will have to reflect who you’re writing for. If you want to write a literary masterpiece that critics will revere for decades, you won’t be able to write about a boy wizard or teenage vampires. Though you can certainly try.
If you’ve identified your audience, but not the style, try mimicking writers who are already established in that genre. If you can pick up on techniques that they use, you can incorporate bits and pieces of their style into yours to create something new.
It may take a while to really nail down exactly what your style is, but I assure you it’s already there. It’s been developing since the day you started writing.
If you want to up the ante, though, consider doing what the greats did. Turn to your cultural roots like Hurston or Morrison. Fight against the norms of society like Hemingway and Thompson. Although, in the modern age, that might mean composing a story using only emojis … yikes.
If you are committed to being remembered, you’ll have to carve out your own place in history.
You’ll have to dedicate yourself night and day to setting yourself apart.
Photo credit: librakv
Erika Rasso graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A. in English and marketing and is currently working on her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has worked as a writing consultant, an editor for a literary journal, and an editor for an academic journal. In her free time, Erika enjoys writing short stories and screenplays (though mostly she just watches WAY too many shows on Netflix). She is the Director of Production for Craft Your Content.