Writing styles vary wildly across time, place, and context. The phrase “writing style” can refer to entirely distinct meanings of style. For Wikipedia, “writing style” is semi-correctly defined as “the manner of expressing thought in language characteristic of an individual, period, school,” which is, at least, less incorrect than thinking style refers to one or more of the rhetorical modes, including narration, description, argument and exposition. Yet another definition of writing style refers to the actual typeface, or font, used to draw letters.
The more useful and correct definition of writing style is “a style of expressing yourself in writing” and this is the definition of writing styles that concerns us here (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/writing+style).
Writing style derives from a combination of elements in the writing and can change and vary according to the writing situation, time of life, or other factors.
The foremost authority on style is William Strunk, and the foremost book on style is The Elements of Style, written originally by Strunk and later revised and expanded by E.B. White. Written and self-published in 1919, The Elements of Style is still the accepted standard among style texts.
Writing styles are like the proverbial three bears because there are high, medium, and low styles. Examples of high style, also known as academic writing, may be found in scientific reports, academic journal publications and literary analysis. The vocabulary in high style writing is challenging, the organizational pattern complex, and the topics esoteric.
High style writing is found mostly in academic and trade publications because the inherent intricacy of high style writing makes it difficult for some readers. Often, the necessity of using jargon delimits the size of the audience in high style writing. However, the very novels you love right now are written using every style.
Fiction writers may use low style for dialog to portray place, education, or ethnicity in what is otherwise a story told in a high style. Lastly, don’t forget that good writing is altogether a different thing than high style writing, with good writing frequently containing humor and clarity.
Midway between too much and too little is medium style, which is best exemplified by the writing in government publications and technical directions. Medium style writing is not required to be complicated nor interesting and in most schema, isn’t even mentioned because it is easier to explain the other two styles and then add that medium style falls somewhere in between high and low. More accurately, medium style describes good, correct, concise writing that avoids the extremes in vocabulary, length, and topic involvement that characterize high style writing.
Medium style is the sweet spot for technical, business, and other professional publications writing because it combines the correctness of high style with the greater readability and flow of low style. To read an example of medium style, pick up any government publication. We use medium style writing to make what we write more readable.
Low style writing is lesser writing in readily recognizable ways: correctness, vocabulary, length, topic, and structure. Low style writing is street speech, and when read aloud often has cadence and sound of the speech of the people in the region it comes from. Regionalism, or sense of place, is a feature of vernacular and gives it a sense of movement and growth. Low style writing and speech is full of lively innovation in the form of slang and is quick to include new words and new uses for existing words.
Although sometimes it certainly is bad writing, it can be put to good use creatively. Eventually the best neologisms in low style begin their journey into our lexicon to become part of the mainstream until finally they are indistinguishable from words and phrases with a more pedigreed pompatus.
Examples of low style are found in the common or colloquial speech, some modern and postmodern novels, and movies. Low style refers to writing or speaking that isn’t too correct, doesn’t use big words or phrases, has generally superficial topic coverage, unidentifiable or loose structure. It is anything goes writing and speaking, and although we don’t normally use it in formal writing, it occupies an influential place in language development and self-expression.
The definition of proper style also varies according to the type of publication. Journalistic publications such as newspapers use both a set of style rules, Associated Press (AP) style and then each newspaper may have its own smaller set of style rules specific only to that publication, and all of these rules are unlike those used by slick magazines such as People or National Geographic.
Generally, the more frequent the publication the more responsive and changeable are the rules. Most variations in style are small, like the number of spaces after a colon, which many magazines reduced to one from the formerly accepted two spaces. Within academics, each field has its own set of rules: in English and literature, the Modern Language Association (MLA) makes the rules; in psychology, The American Psychological Association (APA) makes the publication rules that all psychologists must conform to in their professional writing. The list goes on. Suffice to say that before writing for any purpose, familiarity with the style used in that area is imperative.
Fortunately, all of the various conventions of style are similar and many, many style guides are available. Obviously, getting the style just right requires reference sources, and trying to wing it without a style guide most probably will lead to pronounced frustration.
The definition of a creative writer’s style is still “a style of expressing yourself in writing”, and is still based largely on the same factors: organizational pattern; vocabulary; topic; and level of correctness. However, the most distinctive creative writing styles may contain additional features such as speech tag use in dialog, repeating motifs, or mini themes, sub textual elements, and continuity in mood or tone over several works.
Remember that the mood of a piece of writing is the overall impression it conveys while the tone of a piece is the writer’s reaction of the mood. Hence, an office may be described as efficient (mood) but perhaps the writer hates efficiency (tone). These features of individual style may cumulatively create what can be identified as the writer’s style.
When composition students are asked to imitate a writer’s style, most of them can do so even though they may be unaware of these style features. Thus although style is often subtle and sometimes difficult to explain, it is still easily recognized at some level. For further thinking, read anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain and then try to write a passage imitating the style in the passage read. That ephemeral something that we find we can imitate is the writer’s style and the writer’s voice is what the writer has to say combined with how the writer expresses it.
A Writer’s Reference is valuable because it covers most styles in current use such as MLA, APA, CSE, AMA, and CM.
Clarity, meaning clearness in thought and style, is the most important part of style. A poorly written piece is probably also an unclear piece of writing. The causes of unclear style are the features of style run a muck: messy essay and paragraph structure, in other words the writer doesn’t place the ideas in a logical order; incorrect sentence structure, such as faulty pronoun references, changes in tense, lack of transitions such as shifting in and out of tenses until the reader is confused; uncertain or ill-conceived thesis, so that the reader never gets that road map to guide him or her through the essay; inadequate development of the topic so that the essay seems to go everywhere but to a logical conclusion.
This list of areas should be viewed as opportunities for improvement rather than a shopping list of mistakes. The point of writing has always been to express ideas, so examples of incorrectness or less than correctness need not be experienced as errors because that perception does nothing to improve a writer’s ability to express ideas clearly whereas seeing these problems as beacons indicating the way to improvement leads directly to amelioration and is the only sensible approach.
Here is the second best style book.
This text includes readings and exercises.
Some closing thoughts on style from great writers.
“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”
“Style is the physiognomy of the mind.”
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
Thanks for reading!
By Ricardo Verde
Suggested Reading Resources Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. NY: Macmillan.