Writing: Skill vs Style

ChessThe uniqueness of writing is similar to how a fingerprint is to each individual. At first glance, they may seem the same, but upon closer inspection, they are vastly different from each other. It’s part of what I find so interesting and enthralling about writing as it is precisely what makes us like or dislike different content.

But one should note that there is a difference between style and skill, and neither should be confused for the other.

Style is what adds flavor to the writing. It is how the writer pieces together sentences and push the flow of the content towards a current. Style is word choice and dialogue preferences and common habits of the writer. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Skill is how a writer structures a story. It is how they know when to use a different word, or slip in a subtle description. Skill is the story itself, while style is how the story is told.

A good way to tell the difference between the two is to think of Gandalf; tall, bearded, grandfatherly wizard that he is. Perfect for telling stories, and even better for adventures. If Gandalf himself is what builds the story, that makes him the skill and his voice the style. In writing, our brains are the skill, and our hands on pens and keyboards are the style.

The best stories are made of the two coming together in a beautiful dance. Softly, with rounded edges and smooth surfaces. Woven so tightly together that one cannot be pulled from the other. The best writers have slowly stirred the two into their veins over time, merging them naturally.

The worst stories are made up of one or the other, with no joining of the two at all.

Without style we encounter either bland stories, or cheap copies of better ones. When writers avoid any focus on style, they tend to either copy the styles of others, or they leave it out entirely. This makes for plain, boring stories, that may have excellent structure, but fall short all the same. Think of how awful it would be to hear Gandalf read you a story in monotone.

Writers who prefer to write with skill alone tend to make excellent journalists and instructional manual writers, but their content is not exactly engaging. In order to have style, you need to search for it by spending a lot of your time reading and writing so that you can seek it out and capture it.

Without skill and only style, we have very colorful writing that makes no sense. It’s like Gandalf on acid: a side story here, an overwhelming description there, all with a dash of unicorns and rainbows in the middle of downtown Halifax. It’s vibrant, it’s sometimes engaging, but not for long. Readers generally lose interest quickly, because of the terrible writing and poor technical abilities throughout the work.

Many, many writers self-publish stories that have a lot of heart in them, but very little skill. Style is well and good until you need to understand the anatomy of a story, then it sort of falls apart like a body with no bones. You gain skill the same way that you gain style: by reading and writing until you have a solid understanding of the technical aspects of authorship.

The lack of the two coming together is yet another downfall of self-publishing, and contributes to the daunting number of mediocre e-books flooding the market. Unfortunately, it is a big reason that it is so difficult to find footing when publishing on your own, as it can be extremely difficult to make your book stand out among a sea of bucket list check-marks.

While I do appreciate that self-publishing has allowed many writers to skip over the often disappointing and difficult journey of finding an agent, submitting to publishers, and waiting for rejections or acceptances for months and months, it has also robbed us of a gatekeeper. Self-publishing has no acquisitions process, which means that anyone can publish anything for any reason, at any skill level, with or without a defined style.

When there is no slush pile to sort through, the actual gems are buried even farther down than they were before, making them nearly impossible to find. Those writers that marry skill and style together in the best ways are lost and sometimes never found. For me, it is one of the things that keeps me from self-publishing.

Do you think that style and skill should go together?

What is your favorite example of the two coming together? (I recently read Red Rising and really appreciated how the two intermingled).

How do you feel about self-publishing?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.

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28 thoughts on “Writing: Skill vs Style

  1. Loved the article, skill is something your born with and can be easily improved, whereas style is a way of writing you learn at a young age, and is much more inflexible imo. Nice writing I’ve followed and ill be sure to check out some of your other posts. I’m a fellow writer myself and would love to get your feedback on some of my posts if you have time. I’m working on a novel currently and I post short stories on my blog. If not, thanks anyway, have fun writing and keep it up 🙂

    • Thank you for reading. I have to respectfully disagree about skill, though. I think that it is but always natural, and that it can takes a lot of work to improve and hone.

      I also think that the more skilled the writer, the more flexible they are in terms of style. Take Rowling for example. She can bend her style to suit various audiences and genres.

      Glad you enjoyed the post! 😊

      • Very interesting response. Some writers are of course uncommonly gifted, but I believe even a non-gifted writer can learn fairly fast how to tell a story, but true storytellers are rare if that makes sense. Thats why as a writer I crave feedback, because to me my works are of a good standard, but I want to improve on the skill I currently have, to aim to be one of those ‘rare storytellers’. An excellent example too, and styles can be changed to suit an audience, but they are very unique to you as a writer. I still remember showing someone some of my work, who didn’t even know I wrote stories, and I was immediately questioned if I wrote it because it ‘sounded like me’.

      • Yes, that makes sense. There is more to being a “Tolkien” than there is to say, an E.L. James, for sure. You are right about styles, the only reason that Rowling was found out after releasing a book under a pseudonym was because of her style. Someone with an eye for detail, and an intimate knowledge of her style noticed similarities, and that was that.

        It’s good to be able to remain true to yourself when writing, regardless of the content.

      • Yep I feel all my stories I’ve wrote are still easily recognisable as my own, even though I’ve grown so much as a writer, just due to small identifying quirks that every writer has. This has been a very nice conversation, be sure to let me know if you need someone to read over something etc.

  2. Speaking from my own experience, I think self-publishing has been very good for me. I’m still not as popular as I’d like, but i’m gaining in the skill category, I’ve made great contacts, and I’m my own boss, which I love.

  3. Even with the gatekeepers, bad books got through.
    Now it is freer, and yes there is a lot of crap. But there are a lot of stories that would never have found a publisher, too different, strange, or just not broad enough in appeal to justify them taking a chance, out there and doing very very well.

    I have had my own success with self publishing. Im one of the ones you mentioned, very little skill, but style, and it has worked. Complaints about skill have been heard, and I’m working on that. Skill, I feel is something that is a hell of a lot easier to gain than style.

    Recently got my book professionally edited, and she killed all the character in her drive to make it fit a very narrow definition of marketable. It has been heartbreaking fixing what she has done over the last week.

    • Yes, they do, but fewer when someone is pouring over them personally. I don’t mean to say that self-publishing is bad, only that it makes it difficult for people who really have talent. It makes it harder for readers to find you, and for you to stand out above the rest. Self-publishing is almost more work than going the traditional route, because if you don’t know how to market yourself, you’ll miss out on the publicity that an established company could offer. But that isn’t always what matters to the writer, so what you personally hope to accomplish should match the route that you choose.

      I think that skill and style both take a lot of effort, and one may come easier for some than the other. It’s all about the personal writing experience.

      I am sorry to hear you had a bad experience with an editor, and I wish you better luck the next time you choose one!

  4. You can have all the skill and style in the world, but your writing might not be marketable. I’m sure there are many classic books which could not sell today. They might have sections which are considered too flat or too dreary or even too thoughtful for the market. What will disappear is Tom Waits’ “I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things” and there will eventually be all skill and style but no guts.

    • I suppose, but style and skill combined are quite marketable on their own, you just have to find where it fits. In turn, you could also say that many bestsellers today wouldn’t have made it to publication years ago. I’d have to disagree with you about books eventually having “skill and style but no guts”, as books frequently tackle controversial sociological and political issues, whether directly or in more subtle ways. I don’t think we’ll lose that anytime soon.

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