Writing Style Help (page 2)

Updated on Sep 21, 2011


  1. Which of the following word(s) or phrases are more specific and descriptive? Underline them. Which words or phrases are more general and nondescriptive? Circle them.
    1. car
    2. red 1968 Ford
    3. on the corner of 58th and Broadway
    4. on the corner

Choices b and c are the more specific and descriptive ones, while choices a and d are more general and nondescriptive.

Degree of Formality

The degree of formality of a piece of writing has to do with how formal or casual the writer's language is. For example, does the writer use slang as if speaking to a friend, or jargon (specific, technical language) as if speaking to colleagues? Does the writer address the reader by his or her first name (casual), or by his or her title (formal)?


  1. Which sentences are more informal? Underline them. Which are more formal? Circle them.
    1. Let's get together after work on Thursday.
    2. We kindly request that you join us for a social gathering at the close of business on Thursday.
    3. These figures indicate the sales have increased significantly.
    4. Sales are up!

Sentences a and d are more informal, and sentences b and c are more formal.

How Sentence Structure, Degree of Detail, Description, and Formality Work Together

Look at how these three elements of style work together in the two following letters. Both convey essentially the same information, but they are written in radically different styles. Read the letters carefully and then list your observations. What do you notice that's different between these two letters?

    Letter A

      Listen, a while ago, I ordered some invitations from your website. I haven't gotten them yet. What happened? Where are they? Find out! I need them!

    Letter B

      Dear Ms. Mirabella:
      Three weeks ago, on April 14, I rush ordered two boxes of personalized party invitations from your website (Order #123456). To date, I have not received my order. Please look into this matter immediately, as I am in dire need of this product.
      Ms. Lindsey

What did you notice about these two letters? How are they different? Consider sentence structure, degree of description and detail, and degree of formality. List your observations in the space below (an example has been provided to get you started):

How The Three Elements Work Together Practice and Answers


  1. Which letter is more formal?
    1. letter A
    2. letter B
  2. Which letter seems to have been written by someone who knows the recipient well?
    1. letter A
    2. letter B
  3. In which letter is the sentence structure more complex?
    1. letter A
    2. letter B
  4. Which letter is more descriptive and detailed?
    1. letter A
    2. letter B


You probably noticed immediately the difference in degree of formality between these two letters. Letter A is written in a very casual style, as if the writer knows the reader very well and therefore does not need to use a professional approach. Our first clue to this casual relationship is the way the letter is addressed. Letter A addresses the reader as "Lucy," while letter B begins with a formal "Dear Ms. Mirabella." The same difference can be seen in the closing of the letters: "Isabel" vs. "Sincerely, Ms. Lindsey."

The (in)formality of each relationship is also reflected in the sentence structure and degree of description and detail. You probably noticed, for example, that letter A uses short, choppy sentences, and exclamation points, which make the letter sound less formal, more urgent, and more demanding. The writer also uses casual words like "listen" so that the writing sounds conversational. On the other hand, letter B uses longer, more complex sentences to make the letter sound more formal and sophisticated.

At the same time, you may have noticed that letter A does not provide the kind of specific information that letter B does. Letter A tells us the writer placed an order for "some invitations" "a while ago," but letter B tells us the order was placed "three weeks ago, on April 14" and that the order was for "two boxes of personalized party invitations." The fact that letter A does not provide specific details is further evidence that the reader knows the writer very well, for the writer doesn't have to provide specific details. Furthermore, in letter A, the writer uses a command—"Find out!"—whereas in letter B, the writer asks, rather than demands, that the matter be looked into. This politeness reflects a professional distance between writer and reader.

In business, as in most writing, the audience usually determines the writer's style. The writer of letter A is probably capable of writing in the style of letter B, but because she has a casual relationship with her reader, she doesn't need to use a formal style.


An idiom is a regional or cultural expression that is used to add style and color to a story. Since the language is often figurative rather than literal it can sometimes be hard to figure out the meaning. It's best to use a dictionary or reference book if you're stumped by what appears to be an illogical or confusing phrase or expression.

  • Don't air your dirty laundry in public means that you should not discuss embarrassing personal matters publicly, just as you would not want to air your dirty clothing on a clothesline for the entire world to see!
  • "Mr. Simmons is giving a final exam tomorrow, so his students will be burning the midnight oil tonight" means that his students will be staying up late studying for the exam. This expression dates back to an earlier time when would need to burn oil in a lamp if you stayed up late reading or working.
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