9. Thou Shalt Not Covet Another Writer’s Style
In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The ninth commandment of writing follows.
9. Thou Shalt Not Covet Another Writer’s Style.
A while back, a computer hacker tried to use my e-mail account to convince my friends to send him money. Fortunately, I found out about the attack quickly, and I was able to change my account password before anyone was ripped off. The details of that experience, however, also reinforced a lesson that I have often preached to my students: your writing style should be as distinctive as your fingerprints or your personality.
If you’ve read any of the previous articles in this series, or any of my essays for that matter, you are already aware of my writing style. Typically, I like to use a relaxed, conversational style. When possible, I also try to inject a bit of humor, and I often use personal stories to make my point. That style has become familiar to those who read my work, and a friend’s wife, Maria, actually alerted me to the e-mail scam. She realized something was wrong because although the e-mail message came from my account, the hacker wasn’t using my style of writing.
The following is what the hacker wrote: “Sorry to bother you with this, I travel to Spain (Barcelona). To visit my ill cousin, She has a severe diabetes and extensive heart complications. she is undergoing testing to determine if she is eligible to receive a heart pump (L-VAD); she is in the final stages of congestive heart failure. If she passes the tests, surgery will be next. It would be open heart and very risky; but the benefits of the procedure would be life-changing and life-extending for someone in the last staes of congestive heart failure. I am deeply sorry for not writing or calling you before leaving, the news of her illness arrived to me as an emergency and that she needs family support to keep her going, I hope you understand my plight and pardon me. Left Ventricular Assist Device (L-VAD)is very expensive here in Spain, So I’ve decided to transfer her back for her to have the surgery implemented. Please I’m wondering if you could be of help to me. Please I need about 3,500 USD to make out all necessary arrangement; I’ll gladly appreciate whatever amount you can assist with. I’ll reimburse you at my return.”
As soon as Maria read the message, she knew it wasn’t mine. After all, she knows I’m an English teacher, and I would never use so many run-on sentences. She also told me the writing was too stiff and stilted, and she assumed the hacker was a foreigner who was using English as a second language. Thus, she called me immediately and let me know what was going on.
Obviously, the content of the e-mail (Emergency — Send me money) also would have been a red flag to many, but if the hacker had used my style of writing, he might have convinced someone to contact him.
In an essay entitled “How to Write with Style,” American novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., writes, “The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo speech you heard when a child.” Then, Vonnegut adds, “I myself grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin and employs a vocabulary as ornamental as a monkey wrench.”
At the beginning of each semester, when I first begin to talk about having a distinctive style of writing, my Composition students seem skeptical. They assume their own writing is pretty much like that of their classmates. Since we use peer-writing groups every week, however, they gradually begin to catch on. In fact, by week fifteen, if a student forgets to put his or her name on the paper, a classmate will read it and typically say to the writer, “Even without your name, I knew it was yours.”
Thus, when you are trying to develop your own unique writing style, you may want to recall the words of William Shakespeare in the story of Hamlet: “To thine own self be true” (Act I, scene iii, line 64). In other words, don’t mimic the words or style of another writer; instead, develop your own.