Have Books Influenced Your Writing Style?

How You Write - Influenced by What You Read?

It’s snowing outside. You’ll know that if you’ve looked out of a window recently, or seen the wall-to-wall coverage of SNOWMAGEDDON II – This Time It’s a Week Earlier Than in 2010. And there’s nothing better on a cold evening than curling up on the couch with a small black and white cat that just won’t leave me alone good book.
So, rather than launching into a lecture on why Tom Albrighton’s sold out by admitting he’ll use the phrase “Much, much more” without hesitation, I’d like to share three of the books that have influenced my writing style.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Noel Adams

I may have mentioned it before, but I’m a tiny bit of a massive, huge, ginormous Hitchhiker’s Guide fan. I’ve got a huge leather-bound anthology of the first 5 books, I like Eoin Colfer’s effort and I can sit through the movie without stabbing myself in the thigh with a fork.

Just.

And indirectly, Douglas Adams is the reason that I’m a copywriter. The first thing I did when we had the internet was search for the Hitchhiker’s Guide. I found h2g2 – a collaborative encyclopedia founded by Adams. Through writing for h2g2, I learnt that I wasn’t a bad writer. Then the community helped me become a good writer. And then I started to write for a living.

(NOTE: h2g2 is now apparently being sold by the BBC. This isn’t good news)

Candide – Voltaire

There’s nothing I like more than writing a blog post with a sarcastic or tongue in cheek undercurrent. It might be the frustrated satirist in me, or it could just be the fact that I’m as sarcastic as they come, but I love it. And Voltaire is the master of the craft. “All’s for the best, in the best of all possible worlds!” cries our eponymous hero, as he nearly drowns, or an earthquake wrecks Lisbon, or as his worldly wealth is washed away. If Voltaire’s tongue had been any further into his cheek, he’d have dislocated something. And it’s this talent for satire that’s influenced the way I write blog posts.

Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

A colleague recommended I read some Vonnegut just after I’d started out as a junior copywriter. And Slaughterhouse 5 changed the way I think about writing. It took me from writing long, dull sentences to short, concise ones. Admittedly, the fact that Vonnegut has a unique style and structure does have a downside. After reading one of his novels, it takes my own style a few days to reassert itself. But if it wasn’t for KV, my copy wouldn’t be half as good. So it goes.

So that’s three of the books that have influenced me. Obviously I’ve missed things like the Sharpe series (a how to on recycling the same themes over and over) and The Hobbit (an example on why you shouldn’t fall in to the trap of big, showy follow-ups), but it I’ve gone on long enough.

So what about you? What books have influenced your writing style? Which authors prompted you to pick up a pen? Do you think Bernard Cornwell can write books that don’t feature the line “Sharpe kicked him in the crotch and hit him with his massive sword.”? I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with, so share your books in the comments section below.

6 Comments comments for "Have Books Influenced Your Writing Style?"

  1. Gareth Millward says:

    My writing style is very academic-based, so I suppose I’ve been influenced quite a bit by those texts which give the most information in as quick and accessible way as possible.

    In terms of general prose, though, I’m a big fan of Douglas “it floated there in much the same way as a brick doesn’t” Adams. My supervisor has been a big help too, getting me down from long run on sentences to a much more concise style. (I won’t name drop him as that’s too sycophantic.)

    I’m not a big fiction reader though. Anyone who can write unpretentiously and clearly gets a thumbs up from me.

  2. Jamie Graham says:

    This is an interesting question. I made a decision a few years back to stop reading so many books as I found they were influencing my writing too much.

    In terms of my copywriting it’s been a good decision as I’m not sure how Roald Dahl and Irvine Welsh would combine if I was writing about consumer tips as I am today :-)

  3. Bel says:

    Well, you know where I come from. If it hadn’t been for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and especially ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ I’d never have searched for h2g2, and that means I would never have written anything – not even in German.
    No other books are consciously involved in my writing style – but then I don’t write to earn a living. I write for fun. :)

  4. I’ve been influenced by Adams and Vonnegut too – and many, many more!

    What’s that? Which books exactly? Oh, right. Well, I think Orwell’s novels are a great place to learn about tight, precise journalistic prose that still conveys vivid impressions and feelings – Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four being classic examples.

    Catch-22, like Adams, is great for using structure and word choice to wrong-foot or disorientate the reader for both meaning and effect. (‘Clevinger was dead. That was the basic flaw in his philosophy.’)

    Is poetry allowed? If so, I’d suggest Larkin as an example of what you can achieve if you’re prepared to excise 90% of what you write and polish the rest until it shines like a mirror. Shame he’s been posthumously outed as a snorting reactionary, but which one of us is perfect?

    Also on poetry, T.S. Eliot would be a good one for sentence length and overall structure, while e.e. cummings or any Zen Haiku poet would provide some great lessons in how to get more message for fewer words.

    The Hobbit and Tolkien generally has to be a great argument in favour of long copy. One of the few criticisms of LotR that JRR actually agreed with was that it was too short. Try telling that to anyone who’s tried to watch all the films back-to-back in a butt-numbing DVD elfathon.

    For persuasive writing, although it’s a bit naff, Seven Hobbits, sorry, Habits of Highly Effective People is hard to beat. As Covey unfolds his argument, which he does at length, it’s almost impossible to disagree. From him I think I’ve taken the habit of opening a paragraph with a flat statement of principle masquerading as fact, on which I then build an argument, e.g. ‘The only way to get more customers is through social engagement’. Totally up for debate, but if you say it strongly enough, people just roll over.

    Finally if you like to use humour then I’d recommend the Irish Times columns of Myles na gCopaleen (pen name of Flann O’Brien/Brian O’Nolan). Every excruciating pun, witty anecdote and recondite flight of fancy you could ever hope to pursue is already there, waiting for you.

    • Andrew says:

      Strangely enough, I really don’t rate Catch 22, and I can’t say the writing style made much of an impression on me. I say strangely enough, because on the face of it I should have really enjoyed it.

  5. Lemondrizzle says:

    I totally agree with George Orwell. He will always be my number one, although I would have chosen the essays rather than the novels (though both are brilliant). He makes it look so easy.

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