Style & Story: How “What Not to Wear” Teaches About Writing

Advice for ladies and gentlemen.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

“What Not to Wear,” starring Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, is a reality TV show in its tenth and final season on TLC.

The focus of the makeovers is as much about celebrating the contributors as it is helping them to evaluate, reconfigure and embrace their best-fit personal style.

Stacy and Clinton offer insights that apply not only to why a pencil skirt might work on your body but also why you deserve to look and feel your best.

The hosts are witty, adorable, thoughtful and upbeat.

Yes, they have a serious hate on for “mom jeans,” but they love what they do, they’re great at it, and their enthusiasm is infectious. What’s more, hairstylist Ted Gibson and makeup artist Carmindy are likewise spot-on terrific — sharing insights, encouragement and helpful tips.

For my pals the U.K., I’ve never seen that version of the show, but I’m under the impression that the U.S. version is less caustic. Likewise, when I talk to friends here about WNTW, many are under the impression (from the title, I think), that the ambush and (literal) trashing of the “before” wardrobe are the whole point. They’re not. Among other things, contributors are given $5000 to purchase a replacement wardrobe (and wouldn’t most people living on a writer’s income love that?).

Clinton and Stacy keep their critiques about the clothes, not the contributor, and they make an effort to help select new outfits that make sense for the individual’s personality, goals, shape and lifestyle. What’s more, they teach her how to do the same on her own.

Even better, their definitions of “beauty” and style are inclusive. Nobody’s asked to go on a diet, embark on an exercise regime or have their body parts surgically rearranged.

Instead, it’s about each contributor embracing her unique awesomeness (taking into account larger societal expectations). The featured individuals span body type, orientation, gender identification, income, race, region, culture, etc.

As a fan of the show, it’s occurred to me that much of Stacy and Clinton’s advice could–with a tweak or two–apply just as well to a career in book writing as it does to creating a wardrobe.

It’s all about what you’re trying to say.

With that in mind:

Assess & Strategize

100+ degrees? Rock those arms.

Everyone’s body is different. I’m curvy with short arms and therefore often shop in the petite section, even though my height is average at 5’5”. As a brown-eyed brunette with light olive skin, I tend to look best in brights and jewel tones. I’m tall enough for a ¾ jacket but short enough (and mature enough) that I should probably keep skirts around the knee.

Everyone’s writing is different. I’m a fantasist and realistic fiction writer. I enjoy world building, write across age markets, lean toward multicultural casts, experiment with literary devices and often employ elements of suspense, mystery, humor and romance. In deciding where to go after the Feral series, I’ll weigh all this before making my next move.

Got it?

Okay, now consider your own writing, your predispositions and skills, what you might want to try—or try on—next.

Express Yourself

Stand out. What do you want to say and how?

Sure, you have to consider what’s appropriate to the situation. But no matter what, you’re communicating, people are paying attention, and you’ll be more effective if you own that responsibility. Dressing in over-sized clothes with holes in them says something. Pairing a colorful pattern with a more subtle one and a completer piece says something else.

Writers, what do you want to say and how? What’s the story you’re eager to share? The approach you want to take? How do you want the reader to feel as s/he turns the pages? What choices do you need to make to communicate that?

Color, Pattern, Texture & Shine

I organize tops by color, then prints by color family, then arm length.

Speaking of choices, there’s an art to style. Create interest by juxtaposing color, pattern, texture and shine against neutrals. It’s the bland elements that make the flashier ones pop (without overwhelming).

There’s an art to writing. Create interest by juxtaposing poetic language, punctual language, description, action, dialogue, interior monologue, quasi-epistolary elements and/or literary devices against white space. Yes, what you don’t say speaks volumes, too.

(Feature) Focus

You toss a shiny, colorful, print-and-ruffled blouse against a rattlesnake-textured crop pant and cover it up with a full-length, fur-trimmed corduroy jacket and you’ve got a scary mess.

You’d be better off with a button-up white cotton blouse and dark-wash jeans. Better still if you added a woven medium brown leather belt and some silver jewelry, plus a bright red bag and studded heels (that don’t have to match, but should go). Ask yourself what serves the outfit.

And ask yourself what serves the manuscript. You’re studying novels in verse and cooing over witty footnotes and enamored with graphic elements and thrilled that you can finally frame a voice well enough to succeed with alternating point of view. Nobody wants to wade through all of that at once. Choose for effect.

Try Stuff On

“Jeans go with everything.” –Stacy

You’re intrigued by the dress, but you think it’ll hang on you like a potato sack. Try it on anyway. Maybe the color will make your eyes pop. Maybe a belt will create shape. You’ll never know until you try.

For me, the short story has been a tremendous venue for experimentation. It’s my literary dressing room.

Don’t get me wrong. Shorts (in fiction and fashion) are a wonderful end unto themselves. But there’s less at stake—in terms of time and money—with short fiction or nonfiction than with a book.

I tried writing upper YA, boy voice and humor first through the short story, and now all three are hallmarks of my work.

It’s Not a One-Size-Fits-All World

You know something about one-size-fits-all clothes?

They’re shapeless. You’re not. You deserve better.

You’re not a lesser person because you’re not size 2 or 20 or because you are a size 2 or 20. Own those curves and/or plains, baby, and find the fit that’s right for you!

YA fiction may be hot, but your passion and skill set are a better fit for nonfiction picture books. Or you’re writing YA fiction, but you’re skewing edgier or more literary or more humorous than the presumed ideal book of the moment. Don’t jam yourself into a one-size-fits-all story just to sell. Write the book that’s right for your future fans.

Be Educable

If you’re falling out of that top, you’re probably not going to be taken seriously at work. If you’re not getting dates, your off-duty nun apparel might have something to do with it. Don’t cling to what’s never going to work. Be open to improvement and a brighter future.

If you’re getting the same feedback from your critique group and in editor-agent conference consultations, it’s possible they’re all onto something. Listen. Consider. Revise.

Think About Use Value

“Every Texas woman should have a boot.” — Clinton

Are you ever going to wear that?

I bought some fully lined black leather pants (Nordstrom’s leather, not biker-chick leather), and they looked elegant. But I live in a city that boasts over three hundred days of sunshine and the heat that comes with it. I wore them once and now they’re in the donation pile.

How charming that you’re inspired to write a novel about the inner musings of a mollusk. You’ve done your mollusk research, channeled your inner phylum.

If you’re writing for writing’s sake, rock on with it. I believe in art for the joy of art. But if you want a career in children’s publishing….

Sorry, kitten. Nobody else (outside of perhaps your family) is going to read that.

Trust Your Gut

This will sound contradictory, but hey, it’s a balancing act. Yes, you need to make thoughtful decisions but don’t think yourself into paralysis. Maybe you don’t have an occasion for that dress, but wearing it makes you feel like you’re twirling on air. Buy it and throw a party.

Unless you’re deep in mollusk brain, write the book you have to write and let the market worry about itself. It might even surprise and reward you.

Be Your Own Boss

So far, my favorite “What Not to Wear” contributor is Emi from season 9.

She’s an effervescent science teacher, age 25, who loves her momma and grandmomma. But because of their fashion advice, she was dressing like she was 65 (and a frumpy 65 at that).

You have to wear what’s right for you, even if it doesn’t please everyone and/or challenges their comfort zones.

Writing children’s-YA literature? News flash: you’re not a teenager anymore, and you don’t need your mother’s or grandmother’s permission or approval. Ditto your minister, your husband, your children and the ex-best-friend you see at the occasional soccer game.

In style, you need to be true to yourself, and in story, you need to be true to your characters. Put them center stage and let the chips tumble.

Structure Is Your Friend

The cut of clothing can accentuate/de-emphasize your shoulders, curves and legs. It can take what you’re trying to say about yourself, your purpose and the occasion and make it more polished.

Story structure or a poetic form can help you organize your thoughts and make them more accessible to young readers.

It’s Not You, It’s the Clothes

You’ve tried on twenty pairs of jeans and none of them work. Keep trying. You may need to get alternations, but nobody said this wouldn’t take effort. Put in the time, and don’t make each attempt a reflection of who you are as a person.

So those aren’t the right jeans for you. So what. Keep the faith, and eventually, you’ll find a pair that make your booty look fantabulous.

You’ve sent twenty queries to twenty agents, and so far nothing’s panned out. Keep trying. You may need to revise or tweak your letter, but nobody said this wouldn’t take effort. Put in the time, and don’t make each attempt a reflection of who you are as a person.

So those aren’t the right agents for you. So what. Keep the faith, and eventually, you’ll find your manuscript’s champion.

You Deserve to Feel Great Now 

Raise your hand if you like my new gold shoes!

Don’t wait until you finish that MFA program or sign with an agent or sell that book or win an award or make the bestseller list to begin celebrating the awesomeness that is you. Celebrate now!

Oh, wait. That one works for style and story without tweaking.

Go figure. And go ahead, celebrate!

More Personally

I watch re-runs of “What Not to Wear” while weight lifting. It makes me happy and offers enough to think about to distract me from the pain. It’s the only reality television show I’ve ever watched.

In the past month, I’ve built a new wardrobe, and Clinton and Stacy’s “essentials” list from Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body was the perfect place to start. Consider it highly recommended.

About Cyn

Enter to win
Enter to win

Cynthia Leitich Smith (that’s me!) is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series, the Feral series, numerous essays and short stories as well as several books for younger readers.

Cynthia’s home base on the Web is Check out her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter @CynLeitichSmith.

Thanks to P.J. Hoover for wowing us with her amazing new cowboy boots.

10 thoughts on “Style & Story: How “What Not to Wear” Teaches About Writing

  1. Fantastic post! A whole new wardrobe of writing thoughts. (And yes, I have been a follower of Stacy and Clinton for years, so this resonated deeply with me.)

    LOVE your gold shoes!

  2. Thank you for such a great post! I've watched WNTW for years, and it has helped me, personally, a great deal. I have taken their tips to heart. They got me to consider and see how clothes work for me – not that there's something wrong with me because something doesn't fit or a current trend doesn't work for my body.
    I could go on and on about the real life lessons Stacy and Clinton are serving….
    On to the writing. Love it! I plan to print out this post and see how it applies to what I'm currently doing with my own writing, and how I can apply the WNTW advice in this area of my life.
    Merry Brown

  3. *giggling*
    Clinton and YA Lit. WHO KNEW!?!?!?!

    I loved Trinny & Susannah, but Clinton & Stacy have the adorbs going on, and I love how you paired that with being encouraging about writing. Thanks. I needed this today.

    Also suddenly feel the need for gold pumps and some boots…

  4. Awesome analogy. I love the show and agree with you wholeheartedly. It's about looking your best, feeling your best, and therefore experiencing the best life can offer you. And as a writer, it fits, pun intended.

  5. Hi Cynthia. This is really interesting. I was looking for ideas when I ran into your blog. Please allow me to link my "What Not to Wear & Why" hub to this post of yours. Many of my friends would love to know the other many great ideas from you. I hope you don't mind. I shall let you know when I'm done. Thank you and more power to another beautiful woman! -Tonette

  6. Thanks, Beth! There should be more gold shoes occasions, but I rock them whenever I can.

    Merry, I likewise love the emphasis on making the clothes fit you and not vise versa.

    Tanita, go shopping!

    Thanks, DP & Varsha!

    Terri, it's definitely about making your best possible life (and books!).

    Denise, your awesomeness is radiant!

    Susan, I'm afraid I've yet to catch "Dancing with the Stars." Why don't you tackle that one?

    Tonette, please feel free to direct your readers my way, and thank you!

Comments are closed.