Paying close attention to sentence structure and word choice is key.
What is your writing style — fast and chatty or slow and scholarly?
If you mainly write on Medium, you’ll be used to the need for high readability and simple vocabulary. Or maybe you write hundreds of corporate reports or provide in-depth explanations which require longer, more authoritative sentences.
What’s more likely is you’ve encountered the need to write both ways. With writing, there is never a one-size-fits-all option.
One of the main factors which determines whether you convey your message well is the style of your writing.
“Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style.” Jonathan Swift, Letter to a Young Gentleman in Holy Orders, 1721
There are many definitions of ‘writing style’. I personally like Jonathan Swift’s take (above) because style can change. Let’s be honest, passages from Gulliver’s Travels would not fit the tastes of the modern fiction reader. However, his take on style will never go out of fashion because, as writers, we must deliver our messages in the most appropriate way.
This article seeks to clarify what ‘style’ actually is. Later, you’ll get some tips on when to change your writing style and how to do it.
What does ‘style’ mean?
The academic world lists four modes of writing style — expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. Really these are the functions or purposes of writing in a particular setting.
For me, writing styles can differ even within those four broad categories. The following aspects contribute to the style of any writing:
- Word length
- Sentence length
- Sentence construction
- Choice of literary techniques
In a nutshell, I see writing style as the choices that writers make to expose each idea in their text. Rather than relating to the purpose of the entire text, style is the writer’s selection of sentence and paragraph structure.
Why does style matter?
Writers need to understand the choices they make in order to write effectively in any particular form. Developing analytical reading skills, helps writers to identify elements of style which are relevant to what they are producing. Making conscious choices about style gives writers the power to produce work across a variety of contexts and for a host of different audiences.
The seminal ‘how to write’ book, Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 1935) begins by warning that ‘style’ is not about the writer at all, but should be linked to the needs of the audience:
“Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.” — The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
The book provides sound examples of the principles that allow authors to remain in the background, so their text can come to the fore. Yet, as a general guide to writing, the book is unable to delve into the complexities of different forms. Further, the digital revolution has turned writing style on its head. What would Strunk and White think of the catchy titles and conversational blogs of Medium?
What they do say is that we should write in a way that comes naturally and work from a suitable design. This is certainly advice that we can continue to follow.
How is style different from voice?
In literature, the two terms are often interchangeable. Again, there is no correct definition here. My view is that while style is the nuts and bolts of sentences (and is changeable), voice is the ‘fingerprint’ of the author. The voice of the author may be silent in academic or B2B work, but in other forms of writing (editorial journalism, copywriting, personal stories), a writing voice may sing loud.
‘Voice’ includes the following elements:
- Pronoun use and register (formality)
- Word/phrase choice
- Habits of punctuation/formatting
- The ‘angle’ or ‘frame’ for the piece
- Rhetorical/persuasive techniques
- Cultural references and background
Voice allows the reader to identify and recognise the author in the text. For example, one writer might use slang terms or change typical sayings to form their own idioms. Another might have a habit of shooting down opposing arguments before laying out their own ideas.
The rhetorical or literary techniques a writer uses contribute to voice too. We all know writers who rely on lists of three, rhetorical questions, or clever wordplay. That’s not always a bad thing — it allows the reader to form a connection with the author’s work. We go back to the same writers because we trust them to produce another great book or article, but we also want to hear what they have to say and spend time in their presence.
We’ve established that style should change, depending on what you need to write. Before starting, think about the acronym C.A.P. — Context, Audience, and Purpose.
The context of writing is the parameters, platform, or publishing form. Of course, social media posts are read on a mobile screen. Sentences should be short and simple. Every word must count. An article in a corporate magazine should use a wider variety of sentence structures (e.g. compound, complex, and compound-complex) to provide expert content which satisfies the curious reader.
The audience determines many of the style choices writers need to make.
- How knowledgeable are they on the topic?
- Are they likely to be native English speakers or a global audience?
- What are the other sources of their information?
These types of questions allow writers to decide whether longer, more technical words would fit the bill or whether they should grade their vocabulary. In some cases, audiences may require points summarised or even rephrased. An article to help the elderly connect a device to WiFi should be reassuringly detailed, whereas a teen audience would require concision.
Purpose is ‘why’ you are writing. Let’s say you’re writing an email to a supplier. You’re good friends and communicate all the time. Maybe you’ve made jokes and exaggerated how difficult your job is in other emails. But in this message, you have to apologize for late payment and ask for an extension. Hyperbole and humour aren’t appropriate here. Similarly, you don’t want to appear insincere by writing clipped sentences and single-line paragraphs.
Examples of different styles in action
Consider the following pieces of information.
- The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest trade fair for books.
- More than 7,300 exhibitors from over 100 countries attend.
- In 2017, more than 286,000 visitors attended.
- The event lasts for five days.
- It is held in October.
- 1949 was the first year of its modern iteration.
- It has a tradition spanning 500 years.
We can choose how to form, connect and order the sentences. A simpler version might be used for web copy or a Tweet. Here, we may choose to use simple sentences and fragments:
“500 years of tradition. 7,300 exhibitors from over 100 countries. And nearly 300,000 visitors. This October, enjoy five days of spectacular presentations at the world’s largest trade book fair — Frankfurt.”
The example below might suit a corporate brochure or an ‘about us’ page.
“With over 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries, the Frankfurt Book Fair is considered the world’s largest literary trade fair. In fact, more than 286,000 visitors attended the five-day event in October 2017. Although 1949 was the first year of its modern iteration, its tradition goes back more than 500 years.”
This text uses complex sentences which begin with dependent clauses (a more advanced reading level is required). Conjunctions and discourse markers connect the sentences. Also, we find longer, three-syllable words (considered, attended, iteration).
Both passages use the same information, but the writer chooses how to expose that with their style.
All of this may seem obvious, but we must vary our writing style because we want our words to bring us the best results possible. What you may not know is how to build your understanding of new and existing styles to make sure each time you hit send (or publish), you get it right. Read on for some tips on how to learn and apply the right style for your writing.
5 tips to make the best style choices
- Read great examples of the types of writing you do — twice. Read once to consume the information, and read again to analyse for style. Take note of the sentence and word choices. Where are longer or more difficult constructions used? How concise is the text? Which techniques were used or omitted? Why?
Analysing text gives you the means to reverse engineer successful writing. Remember, mimicking style is not the same as losing your own writing voice.
- Pay close attention to sentence openings and the position of main verbs. Ensure that your own sentences begin in a variety of ways, but don’t make your style too complex for the form. If the main verb is too deep into your sentence (for example, it comes 21 words into this one), your composition will challenge readers more.
- Run your writing through text analysis tools like Count Wordsworth or Hemmingway Editor. You’ll get statistics on readability, word frequency, overly complex constructions, and more. These tools are not just for simplifying text. You can use them to assess if your style matches famous writers in your field.
- Format your text to look published. Understanding the shape and spacing of text will help you gauge if it matches the context of your brief. For example, add text to the PowerPoint before typing it all out in Word, or send a test email before the campaign goes live.
- Get into the mind of the reader (not an easy task). Take time away from your draft and look at it with fresh eyes. Change the font or format and scan at the pace a reader would. Try skimming it for quick answers. Will your audience understand it how you intended?
Reminder: Before you begin writing, think about the C.A.P. (Context, Audience, Purpose).
There is more than one definition for writing style, and your style should vary from text to text. I think of it as the choices a writer makes when presenting their ideas to the reader.
In order for your audience to read ‘proper words in the proper places’, it is important to apply appropriate style to your work. Through analysis and careful editing, you can apply these ideas to write a variety of texts without losing your unique voice.
Philip Charter is a writing coach from the UK who works with multilingual content writers. He is the author of two collections of short fiction and Fifteen Brief Moments in Time, a novella-in-flash.