The (Necessary) Shift of Style

In this post: Definition * Structure * How To Make It

Your Style is part of who you are as a person; which in turn reflects on how you express as a writer. However, as you, Style can change, improve and be shaped into another culture. When you are expressing your thoughts in a new vocabulary, you are also reaching through a new set of words and meanings. Because Style evolves from a creative organization of words in a page, your Style, unavoidably, cannot remain the same when you shift to a new language. This is an area of expertise that is both exciting and worrying — because it doesn’t seem to have been documented or exist in any shape or form, except inside my awkward, curious and always-expanding brain.

They don’t teach you about Style when you are learning a new language (except in good Graduate Courses). And yet, Style is the most important asset in Creative Writing. Without it, you are not a novelist — you can be, at best, a blunt technical writer. We’ll read your essay on Customer Care because the boss says so, not because it’s our lunch break and your writing takes us by the hand to a new, believable World of mythical creatures or talking potato edges that whisper we aren’t fat. Oh, the wonders of Style!

In a ready-to-go notion: good Style makes any story sound believable. It doesn’t mean that we don’t know potato edges can’t really talk, it means that from the moment we engage in your words and ideas until we finish the story, we open our imagination to believe they do. This Reader’s Openness can only be carved through Style. Good stories are told with an amazing sense of rhythm and the best choice of words. They become part of our imagination with such intensity that good stories often persist inside our heads long after we finished the last chapter and landed the book on a shelve. That’s what you’re aiming for as a Creative Writer. That’s why a simple translation of your thoughts to a new language will not suffice. Your Style must follow the shift.

The Structure of Style

Without understanding the Shift of Style that occurs when writing in a new language, your writing is at risk of sounding artificial and rough. Put it simple: it will sound like a foreigner wrote it; which is okay if you’re not aiming to get published and just want to be understood at your job. But when you mind your Style, you learn to adjust your immediate thoughts to a similar, yet not exactly the same, flow.

By doing so on my posts, I tease you now and then and make this subject of writing a full-length-novel-in-a-second-language seem easier than it is. I try to bring your spirits up with encouragement after I write about all the things that can go wrong in Creative Writing. But the teasing and the encouragement isn’t always built over the same expressions and speed as if I were to write it in my mother tongue. In my specific case, it would be similar, as Portuguese and English have the same origin of words: Anglo-Saxon and French. Some sentences can even be translated directly, maintain the same order of words, and still sound ‘native’ English.

My name is Vanessa = O meu nome é Vanessa (portuguese).

But I’d have to double the Shift of Style (ergo: work more on flow, speed and expressions) if I came from a mother tongue with a different language source. The same reason why it’s much harder for me to learn Chinese, than English or French.

How I Improved My Style

When reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight for the first time I had a Portuguese copy of the book, because I was still living in Portugal and written English gave me headaches. I only read in English through secondary school (English classes) or, later, when I couldn’t find a specific book for my graduate degree (Graphic & Web Design) or software I was studying, in portuguese.

After moving to Ireland and allowing my brain to embrace written English, I discovered the Twilight Saga in its original form and while reading it, learned the meaning of several words. One of those words was the verb ‘to sigh’. The most amazing discovery I’ve made after understanding its meaning, was that Bella, the main character of Twilight, rarely sights in the Portuguese translation but is always doing so in English. I must find a Portuguese copy to go through this discovery again more closely, but this represents one of the aspects of Style within different languages.

Sighing in Portuguese has a much more dramatic meaning, and its effect prolongs and weights on a character’s mindset more than what Stephenie Meyer surely intended. It doesn’t mean that a Portuguese person doesn’t casually sighs, exhaling a tiny amount of breath. But we are more inclined to register that gesture as utter annoyance or a profound and/or prolonged gesture of lust if we read it on a page. Bella didn’t sigh for these reasons, it was a smaller, subtler sigh, probably only meant for her own acknowledgment and the Portuguese translator assigned for Twilight understood this difference.

Latinos fall onto the dramatic by default (note: in Portugal we consider ourselves Latinos, although I know that in other parts of the world, like the USA, it refers to the Mexican culture. We are also dramatic.). That’s why we are usually very good when expressing on intense feelings, like impossible love and sorrow, and even have a unique word to convey the group of emotions one feels when missing someone or something – Saudade – a word that doesn’t exist in English and has no direct translation to it.

Saudade is a feeling – “I feel saudade of portuguese food”. The closest word in english is not enough to convey its meaning completely: longing – A strong persistent yearning or desire, especially one that cannot be fulfilled. If you were to write a novel in Portuguese without understanding the intricacies of this language you’d probably miss several words like saudade – a feeling so important to portuguese natives that we’ve all said it at some point in our lives and can easily relate to it.

These particularities exist in all languages, through different words and contexts. It’s important for someone writing in a second language to be totally aware of this, as it may easily become a limitation you aren’t aware of in your own novel.

In the Inuit language there are many different words for the one English word “snow,” emphasizing the importance of snow, and the different types of snow to the Inuit, and its relative unimportance in English, particularly in England where the vocabulary originated. In English speaking countries where snow is an important feature, [natives use] adjectives to describe the different types of snow, not different words [nouns].
Concise ESL Support

How To Improve Your Style

To write creatively in your second language you must edit beyond the first word that popped into your mind while you were writing your first draft, driven from your unconsciousness, which is processing your thoughts in your mother tongue. (You still dream in your mother tongue, don’t you?)

As you gain experience, you’ll discover that the first editing can be done consciously inside your mind, even before you summon the words on your keyboard. Nonetheless, you must revise your text afterwords, often more than once, from the perspective of an English readership.

As you may suspect, Style is not always so obvious or as easy to document, because it’s meant to work its magic on feelings and order of thoughts; not so much through specific actions. (Actions are the tools of plot and characterization, and I shall go to that one in another post if needed.) Your sense of Style will develop and change many times over the years, the same way that you’ve changed the way you write from when you were a child, a teenager or a young adult until now.

You will hate this process, learn to polish it, fall in love with it and hopefully learn to respect yourself enough to keep improving. But, no matter what stage you’re at always remember: before you were a writer, you were a reader.

The writer drafting in his second language has a much harder task at hand than the native one, but be happy to know you are not required to change your values or change your story and much less the unique experiences of the country and culture you live(d) in. When your novel is finished, the most important contribution you have to give to the Literary World remains the same: your Voice.

[ You can read more on Voice: here ]

5 thoughts on “The (Necessary) Shift of Style

  1. Not true, I’m afraid. Writing fiction has nothing to do with self expression – in fact work which still has the author’s footprints tracked across it is usually bad work, I find. The voice of a novel is not the writer’s; better to look on it as a bonus character. It is just as much a creation as the protagonist. The purpose of style is to hide who the writer is, not reveal it.

    • Hi Martin.
      I believe you are confusing Style and Voice in Writing, with the style (clothes one wears) and voice (the way one talks) of the writer/author as an individual human being acting upon his own life. Don’t be so literal on the meaning of the words style and voice.

      Style in Novel Writing = the way one creates rhythm, expression and flow in his writing;

      Voice in Novel Writing = the way one creates inflection, tone and pitch in his writing.

      Written fiction has everything to do with self expression, which doesn’t mean that you will write dialogues as if you were the one talking. Self expression is not directly related to ‘expressing about one self’ but to express creatively about anything you wish to express about, with your unique ‘way’ of writing (you and I can write in the point-of-view of a magical fairy, following the exact same synopsis [plot and actions], and still our writing styles would be completely different).

      Your characters will have their own voice, but your novel will have its own original mark through your unique writing style.

      I would recommend you read more on the subject of Style and Voice on Creative Writing books, such as “Creative Fiction” – specifically Karen Salyer McElmurray’s essay entitled “A Question of Style”.

      If you don’t have time to read books on Creative Writing, here’s a shorter definition of style I randomly found on the web (there are several):

  2. I take these posts far too seriously.
    I have a sudden urge to go over my manuscript and edit beyond the first word that popped into your mind, because the first word is nearly always the one I use… unfortunately, lol.

    • What if I tell you that I envy (in a positive way) your way of writing? The more I know the harder it gets to write without edit: that’s not good at all for a first draft.

      I’m learning about this problem on the book I’m reading at the moment “How to Write Fiction (And Think About It)” about how the unconscious and conscious work in novel writing and how it is so hard to balance the two the more we know about the craft.

      You don’t have a problem when you write the first word that comes to mind. Your problem seems to come later, from what you say, you don’t bother to edit? Is that it?

      • If you got stuck on this sentence:

        “To write creatively in your second language you must edit beyond the first word that popped into your mind while you were writing your first draft”

        please remember that this is about writing in a second language and implies that the writer has finished his first draft and is now revising it. Therefore, in his second draft. Do you write second drafts?

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