Writing Aesthetics: How to Get Your Writing to Pass the Vibe Check
Everything you need to know about discovering and honing your writing aesthetic.
Writing is hard, not just because you have to get words onto paper, but because those words have to make sense. What a Herculean task! We have to have a point when we’re writing?! What next, a plot in our novels?!
Sometimes, though, even when you succeed in making a point, your creative writing can come across as bland or generic. So how do you combat that? Well, you focus on your writing aesthetic.
Your writing aesthetic is the overall feeling given off by your text and the emotions that your readers come away with. You can control your aesthetic with very specific word and structural choices.
Here’s what you need to make your writing aesthetic shine!
What is writing aesthetic?
To put it as absolutely blandly as possible, your writing aesthetic is the overall thematic structure underlying a work that’s portrayed through various literary devices focused on imagery and sensory input.
Asleep yet? I’m sorry, I know, literary jargon is very dry and boring. Let’s try again and make writing aesthetics interesting.
Have you ever read a book and absolutely loved it but been unsure how to say exactly why? Have you read something and immediately thought, “ah, this sounds JUST LIKE this other author!” and it turned out it was that author? In your own writing, have you ever noticed that the same ideas come up again and again, in everything you create? That’s writing aesthetic.
Your writing aesthetic is basically the information you’re going to get from a vibe check on your own work. It’s the idea or series of ideas that keeps coming up, regardless of the plot or subject of your writing. Writing aesthetics can be as small as a single book or as common and widespread as an entire literary movement, and can cover massive topics like the sublime nature of the world or tiny topics like the feeling of being at home.
You can find the aesthetic of a piece of writing by tapping into the emotions that it pulls out of you, and by looking at what sensory details - sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes - and emotional descriptions the author decides to include. The author might include a repeating symbol, or a repeating focus on a particular sensory experience, or may use the same kind of words to describe things throughout the piece.
Why does your writing aesthetic matter?
If your story is trying to get people consciously engaged in your book in that you want them to pick it up and actually finish reading it, then your aesthetic is trying to get people unconsciously engaged. This means that they come away from your book having felt something, and remember it for a long time to come. Your writing aesthetic can lead to conversations where readers tell their friends that there was “just something about it, you have to read this!”
Writing aesthetic is also important because it means your work will stand out from other people’s. Having a consistent and persistent aesthetic means that your readers will be able to tell that your writing is, well, yours from the very first page. It’ll carry a certain emotional weight that’s unique to you, that, when it finds the right audience, will keep them coming back for more.
It’s also a useful tool for you; when you’re asked what your book is about, or what type of writer you are, what do you say? Is an elevator pitch really enough room to give a full plot synopsis? Instead of trying to give the SparkNotes on your book or describe a genre every time someone asks about it, you can tell them what your writing aesthetic is for that story. Your book might be about family, loss, individualism, natural beauty, or any number of other larger, relatable themes that you can pitch to potential readers in thirty seconds or less.
For instance, my first novel is called Artificial Intelligence. It’s about the crew of a space station, their AI companion, and what it means to be human. This is how I describe my work when I’m promoting it, and the theme that my readers comment on the most often. The meaning of humanity and the importance we attach to it is a running theme in my work and appears consistently across my writing, so it’s a part of my writing aesthetic.
How to find your writing aesthetic
Discovering your writing aesthetic sounds complicated. How can you pinpoint an emotional vibe? Is it even intentional? Reader, it most certainly is, and it’s how great writers keep you coming back for more. Here are some writing tips on how to go about finding your own aesthetic and using it to your advantage.
Read and dissect
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it for the rest of forever: to be a good writer, you have to be a great reader. In this case, that comes in two parts.
The first part of being a good reader is to read a lot and in a lot of different genres. Read books of poetry, scifi novels, books about writing, romances, website copy, promotional emails, fanfiction, thrillers, books about reading - read everything! Reading a wide variety of pieces, both fictional and nonfictional, can help you get a sense of how different writers handle different topics and can show you how fiction and nonfiction writers handle certain topics differently.
You should also try and make a habit of reading several pieces on the same subject. If they’re talking about the exact same thing, the writers are working from the same facts using different approaches. Those approaches are exactly what you need to see in order to learn what their writing aesthetic is and how it impacts you.
The second part of being a good reader is to read deeply. This is where you dig back into your high school English days and really pick apart the work. Here’s a quick guide to deep reading:
- Find a text that you really enjoyed, of whatever genre.
- Read through it for the first time to get the story or overarching message.
- Identify the feelings associated with the piece. Did it leave you excited to know more, content with how the story ended, confused and afraid? Note it down.
- Read through it the second time and take notes, either by highlighting directly into the book (I shiver in horror but it’s okay if you want to) or copying interesting passages and words or phrases that you don’t understand into a separate notebook or file. Leave a comment on each quote to remind you why you grabbed it.
- Question your notes. Dive into why you took them. What stuck out about this passage? Why did the author choose this unfamiliar word? How did this sentence get such a strong reaction from you?
- Find the answers to your questions, either by doing outside research, applying your own logic, or a combination of the two.
A great way to finish a deep reading is to share your thoughts! Talk to a friend about the piece and what you’ve learned or post a review. Heck, if you’re into it, start a review blog and post your findings there; I find that sharing reviews on my blog is a great way to interact with other readers and get conversations going about pieces I liked or found mechanically interesting.
Focus on how you feel
Now that you’ve read a bunch of other people’s work, it’s time to - insert screams of fear here - read your own writing. Look back at pieces you’ve done previously and deep read them. Find out exactly what they make you feel (other than perhaps a need to cringe), and whether there’s a running theme in your work.
If you can identify a running theme, whether it’s a big idea or a recurring tone in the text, you can identify a part of your writing aesthetic. Your aesthetic might have many smaller parts from a fondness for a certain kind of literary device (I overuse metaphors in my fiction and I know it) to a recurring story idea (for me, writing about humanity and its meaning). That’s okay; we’re three-dimensional people, so our writing aesthetics are going to be three-dimensional.
The important thing here is to pick up on what those themes are so that you can work with them consciously in your next piece.
Plot your piece’s vibe
Okay, you’ve got an idea for your aesthetic. How do you develop it?
When you decide to start your next piece, make it part of your writing process to take some time during the planning stage to choose a vibe. How do you want your audience to feel about the piece you’re writing? What ideas are you excited to explore?
Once you’ve got an aesthetic in mind - and it doesn’t have to be super detailed, just enough to guide your writing - figure out how you’re going to put it to good use. Decide on some literary tools you can use to sell your aesthetic. Here are some ideas for you:
- Choose recurring metaphors or similes to represent a certain theme. Maybe your character’s life is in a state of flux, so the concept of running water keeps coming back up.
- Watch your words. For a truly disturbing and visceral piece, is it better to describe a crime scene as “grisly,” “decaying,” “swathed in blood,” or simply “gross?” Diction is important!
- Draw parallels. Foils in literature are a great way of showing the “what if” of a character’s path without putting them directly in a mirror. Give your main character a foil so that you can really explore the emotions of their circumstances.
Set the mood
Sometimes, when aiming for aesthetic writing, it’s helpful to work yourself into the appropriate headspace before writing, and even tailor your physical workspace to the vibe you want to produce. Take a look through tumblr to browse images that match your vibe or a scene’s mood to help enhance your mental image. Listen to a playlist of music that fits the setting (Indie rock? Folk metal?). Light that scented candle you bought off etsy. Engaging your own senses can help make it easier to focus in on the emotions and sensations you want your writing to convey, so don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works for you!
Edit, edit, edit
Getting the words out of your head is important, but refining them to make your meaning clear is a hard-earned skill that the best writers are always improving upon. Editing will help you narrow down and sharpen your piece so that your aesthetic is as crystal clear as it can possibly be.
When you’ve got a first draft, give it a break for a little while. Take a few days, or even a few weeks, and work on something else entirely. Then, come back and re-read the piece. Having some time away from it will help you avoid the familiarity trap, which is when you’ve read your own writing so much that you can’t see even the most glaring issues.
Once you’ve got that distance, come at your work with a hammer and chisel. Readers will always get more out of a technically clean piece, so you’ll want to make sure your work is mechanically sound first. Mark up the piece like you’re grading it for school - note every typo, confusing sentence, weirdly disjointed transition, and strange word choice you find in red pen. Write up a second draft using these corrections.
Next, grab a friend, a colleague, or a dedicated professional - basically, grab anyone that isn’t you and is willing to read - and let them read the piece. Having outside eyes go through your work is another way to circumvent the familiarity trap. It’s also a great test to see whether your aesthetic is coming through in the way that you wanted it to. Ask them for feedback and implement that feedback into the next draft.
Repeat this cycle as many times as you feel you need to in order to get exactly the vibe you’re looking for in your work and to get a piece that you feel proud of.
Examples of writing aesthetics
If you still need some help figuring out what exactly a writing aesthetic is, here are some examples to show you what it looks like in some famous movements and writings, as well as some of my favorites.
- Kafka’s exploration of the Inner Self. Kafka was well known for his intense, despairing writing that covered characters’ struggles to match their inner and outer selves. His writing often features the transformation of a person into an animal or vice versa, to demonstrate the strange beastliness of being an outsider. Kafka’s aesthetic of despairing transformation is the reason that we recognize his work’s influence in other writers.
- Shelley’s use of the sublime. Mary Shelley wrote her classic Frankenstein during a period known as the Romantic era when the emphasis of literature shifted from realism and rationality to awe and the ruthlessness of nature. There are tons of scenes with vivid descriptions of nature - both literally the outdoors and human nature - that invoke a sense of respect for the natural order of the world.
- Lemony Snickett’s snarky pessimism. Lemony Snickett, the pseudonymous author of the Series of Unfortunate Events saga, has a writing style that you can spot from a mile away. His quirky wordplay, frequent definitions of words in the context of scenes, mysterious narration that injects the narrator’s story into the plot, and overall pessimistic view of the story he’s telling make for both absolute hilarity and intense suspense. He uses these recurring gags and background plot to make the series both dark and intriguing in a child-friendly way.
- Thomas Foster’s no-nonsense wit. Thomas C Foster writes the How to Read Like a Professor series among other reference books for writing. Reading his work is a double win; you learn more about writing in general and you get to see an example of a clear and intentional aesthetic. Foster’s work relies on the diction of a college professor who understands his students’ situation of being familiar with the basics but unfamiliar with the finer points of writing analysis. He balances explanation with humor and simple examples to make his work accessible and enjoyable to read.
I highly suggest looking up these authors and reading some of their work, to see exactly what I’m talking about. Do a deep read of a few of their pieces to see how their aesthetic works and how they implement it so that you can use some of those same techniques in your writing.
Your writing aesthetic might be hard to find, and that’s okay! The best thing you can do is to keep writing. I know it’s generic advice (how ironic), but it really is true: the more you write, the better a writer you’ll become. Practice makes perfect, after all…or at least, practice makes pretty dang good.
Whether you find your writer aesthetic by looking through your work and noticing a theme coming up naturally or intentionally set out to write in a certain style with a certain message, you’re in control of where it goes next. If you don’t like it, change it! If you do like it, use what you’ve learned here to refine your style and make your writing aesthetic feel exactly the way you want it to.