I have been tidying up archives, both physical and digital, while looking for CDs that could be reformatted and used for storage. Trawling through old files, I was struck by how much my writing style has changed over the years.
Style is a personal matter. Oscar Wilde said that “one’s style is one’s signature” but, like a signature, it can change over time. Early works, even published ones, can look embarrassing a couple of decades on, and it’s as well that most of mine have disappeared into that great re-cycling bin in the sky.
Style can and must also be adapted to accommodate the requirements of a given magazine, newspaper or publisher. Standard advice to newbie writers has always been to tailor submissions to fit in with the voice and content of the publication you propose sending it to. An aw-shucks story about puppies would not fit comfortably into the Wall Street Journal and it is a basic rule that, when ignored, ends in tears.
In the golden olden days as a part-time freelance writer my market was mainly newspapers and occasionally magazines. And yes, newspaper editors actually read, and sometimes even published, freelance offerings then because readers had the time and inclination to read them. But even newspapers differed, one from another, from stuffy and old-school to chatty and informal.
From my old files it is only too clear that in those days I tended towards the stuffy end of the spectrum. No spotty sub-editor was going to catch me out with spelling, grammar and punctuation. I put my apostrophes in the right place and probably could still parse* a sentence accurately. I would never have ended a sentence with a preposition as I have done in the third paragraph above. The archive is full of perfectly formed but creaky, dusty and even pompous articles that wouldn’t have a show of getting published now. But everyone else was writing like that too.
Times have changed, thank goodness. I like the casual, informal tone of most of today’s writing. If nothing else, blogging has taught me to let go, to take a chance, to make mistakes, to experiment. Literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly said that a writer arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness. I will always be a pedant when it comes to grammar but at least I am learning to discard stuffy old school teaching and perhaps even how not to be shy.
*Parsing: to break a sentence into its component parts and describe them in terms of grammar