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J. K. Rowling's writing style in Harry Potter

A persistent mannerism

10 May 2019 (Updated 19 August 2019)

J. K. Rowling's "writing style" is nothing if not controversial. Commentary on the Internet is torn between adulation from fans and putdowns from the creative writing establishment.

Regrettably, discussions of her "writing style" seem to regard it as an all-round term for plot, characterisation, narration, and description. Top Google search results turn up impressionistic descriptions like "JK Rowling’s writing is whimsical and rhythmic, with lots of irony and good flow", "her humor is dry and witty", "her writing is very subjective and personal", and "most of the sentence structure feels quite casual".

Only seldom do people look at the nitty-gritty of style: how she puts her sentences together, word choices, and the like. One article points out that she uses too many adverbs. A student paper attempts a grammatical analysis in terms of "deep structure writing style" but fails to deliver.

But some way down in the Google results, you will find someone who has actually delved into Rowling's writing — J. H. Trumble's article titled An exhaustive analysis of J.K.Rowling's writing style, based on a random two-page-spread sample from The Deathly Hallows. While mainly concentrating on punctuation, Trumble points out three specific characteristics of Rowling's style and word usage: sentence length, verb choices (simple), and her love of 'Participial Phrases'.

It's significant that Trumble singles out participial phrases for special mention. This is possibly Rowling's single most glaring grammatical mannerism, one which might explain why some find her writing unimpressive and pedestrian. Once you notice it, it's hard to read a page of Harry Potter quite the same way again.

A brief analysis of Chapter 7 in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 'Mudbloods and Murmurs', confirms Rowling's addiction to present participial phrases (or clauses) to describe a concurrent action.

For instance:

This combines two sentences: "Colin ignored him. His face was shining (or shone) with excitement."

Another example:

(Wood shot towards the ground. Wood landed rather harder than he meant to in his anger. Wood staggered slightly as he dismounted.)

Sometimes the clause comes before the sentence:

Rowling particularly loves to use them with reported speech. For example:

Rowling uses this construction on page after page, at chapter after chapter. While the reader may not be consciously aware of it, subconsciously this mannerism tends to make Rowling's prose sound repetitive and perhaps even amateurish. It might be a great construction for young people learning how to write. It is less so for a mature author who is supposedly a master of her craft.

To emphasise how far overboard Rowling goes with this construction, I reproduce all the examples that I found in the 19 pages of "Mudbloods and Murmurs" (British edition). (In some cases other uses are mixed in, but this only adds to the effect.) It is this construction, as much as vocabulary use and punctuation, that gives Rowling's prose its particular flavour.

These sentences also exemplify to some extent the other characteristic of her writing that stylists have noticed: the overuse of adverbs (which have been bolded in grey). The examples below show only a propensity to use adverbs, which is not necessarily equivalent to overuse.

(With reported speech)

(Clause explaining the previous sentence)