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Writing Style Study Guide (page 2)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Level of Description and Detail

When we talk about the level of description and detail, we're looking at two things:

  1. 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)?
  2. 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:

  1. Jing-Mae just got a new bike.
  2. 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.

  1. When Paul heard the news, he jumped for joy.
  2. 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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