On the Frustrations of Articulating Why I Love An Author’s Writing Style

Articulating Why I Love an author's writing style

I’ve found myself in a conundrum involving some of the best books I’ve read recently. Generally, the overriding factor that makes me love a book is the writing style truly speaking to me. But, what does that even mean?! It’s one of the hardest things to clearly articulate in a book review. So, I end up with less than convincing reviews of some of my favorite books.

I’ve found myself just typing “gorgeous writing!” over and over or, if I’m feeling motivated, trying to use a different word combination that also means “gorgeous writing.” I’ve jammed reviews with quotes from the book…or written reviews almost entirely in quotes. What I haven’t done is intelligibly explain exactly what about an author’s writing style makes it appeal to me. It’s almost easier for me to articulate why I don’t like a particular writing style than why I do. So, I’m going to attempt to articulate what type of writing appeals to me here.

Writing that appeals to me…

  • Is, as Pat Conroy’s friend Tim Belk put it: “spare, unadorned, unflashy, but hard-hitting and severe.” (from A Lowcountry Heart)

From The Mothers by Brit Bennett:

How could she be proud of lapping her mother, when she had been the one to slow her down in the first place?

From Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright:

Later, she would say that there was never a gun in the house. She would swear to this, like a Mafia wife, blinded by passion or loyalty. Either way it wasn’t completely true. There was a gun under her pillow. Whether or not he pulled it out before they shot him, nobody knows.

  • Makes me feel – either straight-up emotion or a strong sense of place

From Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg (emotion):

She heard her name called out—timidly, unsure—but she did not stop or turn around to respond. She was, she sensed sharply as she reached the far side of the parking lot, an untouchable. Not from scorn or fear, but from the obscenity of the loss. It was inconsolable, and the daunting completeness of it—everyone, gone—silenced even those most used to calamity.

From The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (sense of place):

These are the quicksilver moments of my childhood […]. Irresistible and emblematic […]. There is a river, the town, my grandfather steering a boat through the channel, my sister fixed in that suspended rapture that she would later translate into her strongest poems, the metallic perfume of harvested oysters, the belling voices of children on the shore. When the white porpoise comes there is all this and transfiguration too.

  • Clearly communicates that the author is an astute observer of life (i.e. “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing)
    Maggie Shipstead (author of Seating Arrangements) used the phrase “yes, that’s exactly how it is” to describe Adelle Waldman’s portrayal of NYC dating in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I find writing that just perfectly captures the essence of something…in a way I may not have heard before.

From Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler:

On old male friendships:
“[…] that familiarity, that ability to run together, to move together without ever talking. That kind of stillness.”

From The Wife by Meg Wolitzer:

Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.

  • Delivers spot-on social commentary

From The Dinner by Herman Koch:

He never used to have such a powerful handshake, but in the last few years he had realized that “the people of this country” had to be met with a firm grip – that they would never vote for a fishy handshake.

  • “Gets to the nasty heart of things” – Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books used this phrase to describe the writing in Herman Koch’s Dear Mr. M. Koch is unafraid to say the things that most people wouldn’t dare say in polite company.

From Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch

Women have more time to read than men. Once their vacuuming is done they open a book – your book – and start to read. And that evening in bed they’re still reading. When their husband rolls onto his side and places a hand on their stomach, close to the navel or just below the breasts, they push that hand away. “Leave me alone, okay, I just want to finish this chapter,” they say, then read on. Sometimes women have a headache, sometimes they’re having their period, sometimes they’re reading a book.

Writing Characteristics that Don’t Appeal to Me

  • Flowery language / just too over the top

From The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (though I adore Conroy, he can sometimes go too far):

When there were no roses to be thrown, she brought forward the disturbed angels of nightmare who sang the canticles of knives and the blue vulnerable veins in her pale wrists.

  • Overly formal language 

From A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

The sky was the very blue that the cupolas of St. Basil’s had been painted for. Their pinks, greens, and golds shimmered as if it were the sole purpose of a religion to cheer its Divinity.

Other Books I’ve Loved Because of the Writing Style…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington
by Stephanie Danler

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

What characteristics are important in writing styles you love? Who are some of the authors whose writing styles really speak to you?

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  1. Funny, I do the same thing in my reviews. Gorgeous prose, beautiful writing…I say that a lot. I have trouble putting it into words as well. Right now I’m reading Behind Closed Doors–which I’m struggling with because it’s so creepy–and one of my complaints is that the dialogue is kind of stilted. To me, it just doesn’t flow well–feeling almost forced. I’ve always liked the style of Anne Tyler–observational but in a conversational style. Does that even make sense?

    Posted 11.17.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Yes, it totally makes sense! I prefer a conversational style as well…which I why I think I had trouble with A Gentleman in Moscow. Sounds like I need to try Anne Tyler!

      Posted 11.17.16 Reply
  2. This is a great piece, Sarah! I love that you have put so much thought into what appeals to you most. I also find myself struggling with describing “gorgeous” writing in new ways. I’m going to take note of these categories and keep them in mind when thinking about writing. It’s really interesting how good writing stays with you even if you don’t realize it. When I started reading your quote from Prince Of Tides (a book I read probably 20 years ago) I immediately remembered that part of the book! I’ll need to think more about the authors I like most…is it their writing style or the stories they tell?

    Posted 11.17.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Well, my ideal is the writing style AND the stories they tell…but the writing tends to be more willing to carry a book alone for me.

      And – I think I put a lot of thought into this b/c I’m trying to figure out how to better select my books and also have been struggling when reviewing some of my favorite books of the year. I feel like I shortchanged them a bit – Commonwealth for example.

      Posted 11.17.16 Reply
  3. Oooh, so fun! I too struggle with articulating sometimes, and it’s more just like *let me place this book in your hands, please just read it, trust me.* I love your list, and think we enjoy many similar writing styles. I love a flowery phrase from time to time, but if the entire book is flowery, that’s a bit much for me. My absolute fave, is one you mentioned, the “yes, that’s exactly how it is” phenomenon. Love that.

    Posted 11.17.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Hi!! I’ve missed *seeing* you around! Hope all is well!

      Yep – pretty much on “just read it, trust me.” And Pat Conroy is a good example of the occasional flowery paragraph that I can tolerate…b/c the rest of his writing is dang near perfect. But, he loses his head sometimes.

      Posted 11.17.16 Reply
      • Katie McD wrote:

        Yes, we are doing great! Just busy, I’m sure you know how that goes. Full time job, full time mama… No time for much else! Hope you and yours are doing well too 🙂

        Posted 11.17.16 Reply
  4. Gabby wrote:

    I agree! It’s so hard to describe what exactly “good writing” is to you. It’s so subjective and like, gut-reaction instinctual. But I agree, that kind of “putting words to something I’ve always felt but never been able to articulate/that’s exactly how it is” is something that’s just magical when you find it!

    Posted 11.17.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Yep – this is a great description “gut-reaction instinctual.” And how to you put that on paper?!

      Posted 11.17.16 Reply
  5. Oh this is cool, this is a wonderful breakdown of some of the reasons I fall in love with pieces of writing. Another thing that occasionally makes me love an author’s writing is when they can combine words in a way that I’d never thought of before — I feel this way about Helen Oyeyemi, for instance. I don’t always understand exactly what she’s getting at, but it makes me feel little spidery chills to read.

    Posted 11.17.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Yes – I love unique combinations as well. I haven’t read Oyeyemi but need to soon!

      Posted 11.17.16 Reply
  6. Bec wrote:

    I know exactly what you mean. I’ve always put it down to my being a reader reviewer, not a literary critic.
    I enjoy a spare writing style, too many moderators drive me crazy. The book I’m reading now; each sentence is littered with adverbs and adjectives, I can barely continue with reading it

    Posted 11.17.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I’m with you on being a reader reviewer…but I also think reader reviewers are super helpful to regular readers. Sometimes those “professional” reviews don’t tell me the one piece of info I’m looking for, which is do I want to read the book (vs. a detailed literary analysis).

      Posted 11.22.16 Reply
  7. Naomi wrote:

    This must have been a hard post to put together – well done! I’m sure all of us struggle with this at some point. One of my favourite points you make is the “yes, that’s exactly how it is”. I love it when they can show me things I know and have experienced, nut had never really thought about before. Another writer for that, I think, is Maggie O’Farrell (I’ve only read one of hers so far, but that was the one thing that stuck out for me when I read it). And always Margaret Atwood. Oh, and Carol Shields. I’m sure there are many more!

    I laughed at the quote from Mr. M. I don’t know if it makes me mad that he would write that, or if I think his assessment of the situation is pretty darn close. (Although I don’t believe women have more time to read then men.)

    Posted 11.18.16 Reply
  8. You and I seem to like the same kind of “things” in the writing style. Out of curiosity, what fo you think of Dickens? I can’t abide him because his writing is full of overly formal language and is “just over the top”.

    Posted 11.18.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s been SO long since I’ve read Dickens. And I think the only one I’ve read is Great Expectations. I can’t remember what I thought of the writing! However, I tend to not enjoy classics because of the formal writing.

      Posted 11.22.16 Reply
  9. I love that you’ve thought out what makes you enjoy a particular writing style here. I definitely have the same problem! Often the writing that I admire the most is also the writing that I’m least able to describe and the writing where I can least identify the techniques the author is using. I also feel as though I sometimes end up reusing phrases, in part because I can’t get more specific. I think sitting down and articulating what I like, with examples, as you’ve done here could help with that.

    Posted 11.21.16 Reply
  10. Care wrote:

    Lovely post, lovely excerpts. It IS so hard to capture what makes style so impressive. It’s comparable to trying to describe a sense of humor. Which is what I like – when something is funny but probably wouldn’t be in a different context, or a trick of word play. Like trying to define wit to someone who doesn’t get it.
    I will refer back to this list. I have yet to read Meg W and I couldn’t get through the only Pat Conroy I have attempted but I think I just had the wrong book. (Great Santini – UGH)

    Posted 11.26.16 Reply

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