What’s More Important: Content Or Style?

Dan posted an interesting question on his blog today: How true is the following statement?

way you write quote

It’s the whole concept of style over substance – how does the author consider the audience when writing? Could instruction manuals be interesting if someone with a unique voice wrote them?

I touched on the topic in this post, where I asked if any topic could be made interesting if put in the right hands. The quote goes to the next level though. As Dan says in his post:

This is voice. This is ‘tude. This is greatness. This is that quality people can’t quite explain that makes a writing unique, and we all have it.

Voice is what gives writing its “life,” if you will. It’s how we can identify a piece of prose as Rowling’s or King’s or Brown’s or Adams’s without looking at the cover. If I told those four writers (pretend they’re all still alive for a second) to write a story about a comet heading toward Earth, they would all do it with their own “flair.” And they would likely all be highly engaging reads.

million wordsAll writers develop their own voices over time, and not only does it make a work identifiable, it gives the author “permission” to break the rules. King loves to use filters. Both King and Brown started books with characters waking up. Rowling uses lots of adverbs. Adams used omniscient POV in Hitchhiker’s Guide. Now, I would argue that only well-established authors can get away with the “I’m not changing that because that changes my voice” excuse, which many new authors use to justify poor writing. Unfortunately, bad habits =/= voice. There’s a lot more to it than that.

Developing voice is why our first works don’t get published (and even if a first book does get published, it’s probably many many drafts beyond the true “first”). It takes time to figure out who we are and what we’re trying to say. Most of us start out imitating the voices of our favorite authors, and that’s okay. We’re learning the art along with the science of writing, and given enough practice, we develop a voice all our own.

So to answer Dan’s question, I would whole-heartedly agree with the quote.

How about you? What are your thoughts about the quote?

Before you go, I need to do a little shameless begging. S is for Story has been out for a couple of weeks and still has no reviews. If you have the book, pleeease write a review at your earliest convenience. If you don’t have the book and are willing to write an honest review, I will give it to you. Just send me a message via the Contact Me page.

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That is all. Carry on.

13 thoughts on “What’s More Important: Content Or Style?

  1. Interesting post! After three years as an indie writer (two of those earning a full-time living) and hanging out with people earning a quarter million dollars per year and upwards as indies, and by studying the top sellers with the analytical business lens I’ve learned from them to use, I’ve come to believe the answer to this is different if your first audience is agents/publishers (in which case style and craft matter a great deal) or readers themselves (in which case you can have pretty lousy craft, zero poetry to your prose, and still sell if you hit the story/emotional triggers right). Don’t want to bore you or insult authors with evidence, but if you think of (name the trade-pubbed best seller that was written AWFULLY that perplexes you as to why it sold zillions) you’ll see some evidence. If you have Prime, check out all the self-published Prime Reading selections that are ranked high (they’re free with Prime), and you’ll see POV errors, unattributed dialog, and all kinds of stuff that wouldn’t pass any critique circle unremarked. As I come from tradpub, and I even have an MFA (which is like having some horrible disease you have to cure yourself of if you want to sell commercial fiction!) and even write litmag poetry, I had to learn this lesson, and it was painful to me. The lesson is: readers are not a critique circle. The people I know who make mid six figures don’t even revise once. They nail the story in outline, pay a proofreader, and they churn, churn, churn. Learning this truth was hard for me partly because it means I’ve spent a lot of time learning stuff about craft that isn’t important to selling, and who wants to admit they’ve wasted so much time? Admittedly, it does satisfy me to know that I know the craft and don’t violate POV rules and so on. I think about 15% of readers notice too. But 85% truly do not. So I do my revising for me and the 15%, knowing I make less money as a result, and I accept that choice. Most readers only care about story/emotional hit.

    So, tl;rd version: are you trying to impress editors or readers themselves? Two different answers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s an interesting paradox, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t editors/agents want books that readers will devour?

      I’m one of the 15%, but I’m not sure striving for a “clean” MS is costing us. 85% may not notice a tight POV but they may think something was “off” in a sloppy one and lack the jargon to articulate what. I think you’re right about nailing the story/emotional hit though – even as a member of the 15% I greatly enjoyed a filter-ridden indie best-seller despite its need for another editing pass because the story was amazing.


  2. I originally came to the comment section to say that I think that style is more important that content based on the theory that there are only a limited number of successful story arcs out there which are made new by how they are told. Then I read the comments from others and now am no longer quite so sure about my position. So I guess I am still going to stay that style matters more, but only by a thin margin.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you both! With a minor caveat.

    A wonderful story can be flattened by a boring (or disengaging) voice. An entertaining voice can raise a dull story (or subject) from mediocrity and give it new life. But it’s the combination of wonderful story and entertaining voice that really stands out. I try to find an equilibrium between the two.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Great post as usual, Allison. Not sure I totally agree. I think voice is huge to be sure, but I’m a firm believer that story is king, and examples like Hunger Games and Harry Potter tend to transcend their creators who I will concede have tremendous voices. There are also many other authors out there, sometimes first-timers, that I would argue stumble upon a story with mass appeal without having found a unique voice. That being said, I believe there’s no substitute for knowing your craft in any field which is why I swear by my copy of S is for Story … 🙂 Review will be up tomorrow, thank you. 👍🏾👍🏾👊🏾

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I agree about story being crucial. I’m not sure the hypothetical “best” writer could make a dud story work. That said, could a new writer with a yet-to-be-developed voice have worked the same magic with The Hunger Games? 🤔

      Thanks for commenting and for the review!

      Liked by 1 person

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