February 1, 2023
Chicago 12, Melborne City, USA
Articles Writng Styles

Short Story Writing: Article 12: Style


The secret of good style is to say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible. That is the most important statement that can be made about style, and the second most important is that it is only acquired through practice and experience. There are, however, some guidelines which can help us improve.


In any prose composition we are striving for a balance between two things: making sure the reader knows everything we want him to know, and making sure that reading our work is an enjoyable experience. Two kinds of experience we do not want the reader to have are boredom and frustration. The reader will become bored if he finds himself having to read paragraphs, sentences, or even single words which do not contribute significantly to the plot, and he will become frustrated if he feels his own imagination and judgement are being swamped by the author. Over-writing, which simply means saying more than is necessary, does both these.

The antidote to over-writing is simplicity and directness, and in practice the balance we try to achieve often boils down to the question: ‘Do I add an extra word or phrase to give the reader a little more information, or do I leave the information out for the sake of a simpler sentence?’ In short-story writing the answer is easy: You sacrifice inessential information for the sake of a clearer sentence.

Leave room for the reader to put the story together himself. Leave room for the reader to be in control.


Adjectives should be used as sparingly as possible. Over-reliance on them is unprofessional. (Hemingway advocated doing without them altogether.) Action, conveyed by verbs, is the life-blood of fiction, and adjectives are never more than embellishments. It is not really practical or desirable to do without them completely, but the fewer you use the more impact each one will have, so use them with restraint and discretion.


Commas are as important as words and, like words, should be used sparingly. If you can arrange a sentence so that you don’t need a comma you should do so, and always think twice before using more than one in a sentence

Repetition of Words

She checked the indicator board for the destination of the train, then joined the passengers waiting to board the train.

Such repetition of words is awkward and unprofessional, and usually very easy to avoid.

Active vs. Passive Verbs

John threw the ball.

The ball was thrown by John.

In the first sentence the verb is active, and in the second passive. The active form is always preferable because it focuses our attention on the character, and makes for a simpler clearer sentence.


‘That’ can often be left out in writing, just as we often leave it out in speech. She knew she would succeed.’ is better than: ‘She knew that she would succeed.’


Most fiction is written in the simple past tense, (I walked, he walked), and there is rarely anything to be gained by deviating from it. The pluperfect (I had walked, he had walked), is useful now and then for indicating something which happened before the story opened, and for introducing flashbacks, (see Time), but long passages in the pluperfect should be avoided because they take us away from the immediate action. Any change of tense within a story should be handled with care and only done when absolutely necessary.

Some interesting stories have been written using the present tense, (I walk, he walks), but its use makes extra work both for the writer and the reader and in many cases the story would work just as well in the past tense. If you try it, remember that once you have started in the present you must stay in the present, except for flash-backs, right to the end.

If in doubt leave these out

I have already said that words in general, and adjectives in particular should be used sparingly. Adverbs too should be used with discretion. When over-used, especially after lines of dialogue, they become conspicuous and lose their meaning. For example:

“What do you mean?” she asked plaintively.

“You know perfectly well what I mean,” he replied sarcastically.

“No I don’t,” she said impatiently.

“Well you should,” he said haughtily.

Good dialogue should convey the tone in which the words are delivered without any need for reinforcement with adverbs.

Exclamation marks and underlining are also to be used sparingly, and preferably not at all. Again the words themselves should carry their own emphasis.

Never use abbreviations such as etc. or i.e. in a story. They do not belong in fiction, especially not in dialogue.

Don’t use a story as an opportunity to show off your extensive vocabulary. A reader will not be impressed by the use of long obscure words. He is more likely to think you are being pretentious and abandon the story.

Individuality in style

All these dos and don’ts may seem to be an attempt to eradicate individuality from style, but this is not so at all. The main principle is to ‘say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible’, and what he has to say, and what is simple and direct will be different for every writer.

Listen to the Words

All the points I have made are intended to help you make judgements about your style, and the best way to make these judgements is to ‘listen’ to what you write. Actually reading work aloud can be helpful, but with experience it should become unnecessary, as you will develop a capacity to listen silently to what you write, and let your ear be the judge of your style.

You are an Entertainer

Finally, always remember that it is your job to entertain and intrigue the reader, not to pass on information to him, or to convince him of anything.

Copyright: Ian Mackean


Source by Ian Mackean

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