Writing Style Study Guide (page 2)
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
Writers think carefully not only about the words they use but also about the kind of sentences they write. Will they be long or short? Full of description or right to the point? What kind of tone does this produce? This lesson shows you how to analyze a writer's style and how style helps create meaning.
You might think your best friend really knows how to dress with style. Or you might wish that you could update your wardrobe so that you could keep up with the latest style. But what does style have to do with reading and writing?
Actually, understanding style is very important to reading success. Writers use different structures to organize their ideas, and they also use different styles to express those ideas. Being aware of style helps you see what writers are up to.
Style is also important because it's often what makes us like or dislike certain writers or types of writing. For example, some people like stories with a lot of description and detail, while others like stories with lots of right-to-the-point action. You may not change your taste after this lesson, but you should be able to appreciate and understand all kinds of writers and styles.
Before we go any further, let's define style.
Style: a way of doing something—writing, speaking, dressing, and so on; the manner in which something is done.
In writing, style generally consists of four elements:
- sentence structure
- level of description and detail
- level of formality
Think about a table for a moment. How many different ways could you put a table together? It could have four legs, or just one in the middle. It could be round, rectangular, or square—or any other shape, for that matter. It could be thick or thin. It could be made of wood, plastic, or metal. It could seat two people or twenty. In other words, the possibilities and combinations are virtually endless.
The same goes for sentences. They can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. They can be short and simple, or long and complex, with lots of ideas packed together. Writers can use mostly one kind of sentence, or they can use a range of sentence sizes and styles. Sometimes sentences will all sound the same; other times sentences will vary in word order, length, and structure.
Here are examples of two very different styles.
A team works best when it is organized. The leader should have clear goals. All team members should understand those goals. The team members should have well-defined roles. Everyone should have specific deadlines.
The key to an effective team is organization. The team leader must have clear goals, and it's the team leader's job to make sure the team members understand those goals. But how should you meet those goals? Deciding who does what is just as important. Team success depends on everyone knowing exactly what is expected of him or her. Finally, all team members should have very specific deadlines for each job they are assigned.
Notice the following differences between these two paragraphs.
- uses simple sentences.
- uses the same sentence structure (type of sentence) throughout.
- does not provide transitions between sentences.
- has limited word choice, simple vocabulary.
- uses complex sentences.
- has a lot of variety in sentence structure.
- uses strong transitions between sentences.
- has variety in word choice and a more sophisticated vocabulary.
Which style do you prefer? Chances are that paragraph B sounds a lot better to your ear. Paragraph A is simple and clear, but it may sound dull because all the sentences follow the same simple pattern. They are all short, and there aren't any transitions. As a result, the paragraph sounds choppy.
Paragraph B flows well. The sentences are longer and more varied. They sound more natural, because people speak in varied rhythms and in complex thoughts.
Here are two more passages with different sentence structures.
Emma stared sadly out the window of the bus. Only 50 miles outside town was the farm. She thought about the farm all the time. She remembered the breathtaking view from her bedroom window. She remembered the creaky wooden floors of the old farmhouse. She especially remembered the animals.
Emma stared sadly out the window of the bus. Only 50 miles outside town was the farm. She thought about the farm all the time, remembering the breathtaking view from her bedroom window, the creaky wooden floors of the old farmhouse, and especially the animals.
Again, we have two paragraphs that say the same thing but say it in very different styles. The second paragraph has only three sentences instead of six; it combines sentences three through six into one long sentence. But unlike the previous example, here the shorter sentences in paragraph A don't sound awkward or choppy. Instead, the repetition of "she remembered" creates a certain pleasing rhythm. This kind of purposeful repetition of a sentence pattern is called parallelism.
Level of Description and Detail
When we talk about the level of description and detail, we're looking at two things:
- How specific is the author? Does he write "dog" (general) or "golden retriever" (specific)? Does she write "some" (general) or "three and a half pounds" (specific)?
- How much description does the author provide? Does he write, "Mr. Gupta is my teacher" (nondescriptive) or "Mr. Gupta, my teacher, is a tall man with warm brown eyes and a curly mustache" (descriptive)?
Look carefully at these two sentences as an example:
- Jing-Mae just got a new bike.
- Yesterday morning Jing-Mae went to Cycle World and bought an emerald green, 18-speed Diamondback mountain bike.
Both sentences tell you the same thing (that Jing-Mae bought a new bike), but the second version gives you a lot more information. The first writer keeps things general; he does not provide any description or detail. The second writer, though, gets specific and offers description and details.
The level of detail can reveal important information about the relationship between the reader and the writer. Sometimes, if a writer doesn't include a lot of detail, it's because the writer assumes the reader already knows certain information. For example, in the sentence "Let's meet after school on the corner," we can assume that the reader knows exactly which corner and what time to meet.
Description and detail are also important because they can help to draw out our emotions by helping us imagine a situation. For example, look at the following sentences.
- When Paul heard the news, he jumped for joy.
- When Paul heard the news, he jumped up and down on the couch, waving his arms wildly and screaming, "I did it! I did it!"
In sentence B, we can see just how happy Paul was when he heard the news, and we also learn something about Paul.
Level of Formality
The third element of style is level of formality. Would you say to your principal, "Hey, dude, what's up?" Probably not. But you certainly might talk that way to your friends. You usually think about how formal or informal you should be before you talk to someone. The same goes for writing. Writers must decide how formal or informal they should be when they write. They make this decision based on their audience (who they're writing for) and their purpose (why they're writing).
Writers can use slang, which is very informal; formal or ceremonious language; or something in between. They can address readers by their first names (casual) or by their titles (formal). For example, look at the different levels of formality in the following sentences.
- A: Amelia, please come up here now.
- B: Ms. Bravehart, please proceed to the front of the room immediately.
The first sentence is informal while the word choice in the second creates a much higher degree of formality. Here's another example.
- A: I couldn't believe it. I mean, who would have guessed? I sure didn't! I had no clue, no clue at all. And I was the last person to find out, too. It figures.
- B: I was deeply shocked; I had never suspected such a thing. Not surprisingly, I was the last person to become aware of the situation.
Notice the drastic difference in style. Though they both tell the same story and both use the personal, first-person I, there's clearly a different relationship to the reader. From the word choice and style—the short sentences, the very casual language—we can tell that the writer of passage A has a more informal, more friendly relationship with the reader than the writer of passage B. You feel the emotion of the writer in passage A much more strongly, too, because the language is more informal, more natural. You get the idea that passage A is addressed to a friend while passage B might be addressed to an official.
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