There is a quiz floating around the internet that offers to tell you who you write like. It is supposed to examine a few paragraphs of your prose for sentence structure, word choice and so on and then compare it to various famous writers. It’s lots of fun to discover that you write like Arthur C. Clarke or Edgar Allan Poe.
The trouble is, of course, that every time you try it (with a different set of paragraphs) it gives a different result. Likely, the algorithm is fairly limited and maybe even non-existent. After all, they want to bring you to their page to expose you to advertisement — so why go to great lengths to make it accurate?
But it does raise an interesting question. Should you try to emulate another person’s writing style? And is there something completely distinctive about anyone’s style? Certainly we writers often talk about Hemingwayesque or Faulkneresque or Austinesque styles of writing and generally we know what we mean by that (even if no one else does).
But is this something to be striven for? Maybe but I suspect it is more a reflection of reading taste than deliberate writing style decisions.
This is similar to the issue of ‘writers finding their voice.’ This one gets talked about a lot as part of the maturation process of a writer. You only really succeed when you find your voice. But writing style is not what we mean by voice. In fact, for a lot of people, including the instructors who often urge writers to find their voice, the concept is a bit confusing.
Does it mean that the intonations of the story when read aloud always sound the same — like the same person speaking? No, that’s just bad performance.
Voice comes from what troubles you about the world. If nothing troubles you, it is doubtful you will pursue writing; it is almost certain you won’t succeed at it. We all have things that bother us, topics that consistently reappear in our stories. It may be issues of power or gender; it may be a deep concern about the environment or an attachment to place. These recurring themes — along with the specific tropes we use to explore them are part of what we mean by voice. Style is simply a tool that we use to express that voice.
Hemingway said that every writer only has three stories in him or her — all the rest is a struggle to find the best way to tell them. Variation comes from setting and character or by trying to juxtapose two of the stories. But your true voice as a writer is one of passion and concern, of frustration and rage, of sorrow and love.
These are the notes we sing over and over again. And ultimately that’s what determines who we write like. Ourselves.
And that’s ten minutes.