Menu

What’s Your Style?

Style is the quality of a piece of writing that sets it apart from other pieces of writing that might…

Style is the quality of a piece of writing that sets it apart from other pieces of writing that might otherwise be considered similar. Given the same subject matter and a directive to explain the same facts or tell a story whose details are substantively the same, different writers will set out to do the telling in different ways.

For example, one author might write very descriptively, using lots of imagery and adjectives. Another might favor a less ornate approach and simply convey the information. Often, authors for whom style is an important concern will adopt several styles. James Joyce wrote Ulysses in 18 very distinct styles. Another, perhaps more palatable, example can be found in the work of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote, in The Road, as follows:

When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.

The prose here is very simple, composed of words familiar to any speaker of English and sentence construction that’s almost childlike in the way he strings clauses together with ands. The prose in The Road is stark — almost barren — and it suits the subject matter quite well. Compare to this passage from McCarthy’s Suttree:

Peering down into the water where the morning sun fashioned wheels of light, coronets fanwise in which lay trapped each twig, each grain of sediment, long flakes and blades of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes where motes sifted and spun. A hand trails over the gunwale and he lies athwart the skiff, the toe of one sneaker plucking periodic dimples in the river with the boat’s slight cradling, drifting down beneath the bridge and slowly past the mudstained stanchions.

McCarthy’s prose here is a lot harder to wrap your head around. He uses a few words that may not be universally familiar, and his sentence structure is much more complex. Even the average word length and syllable count in the second passage outpace those of the first. I think of much of the prose of Suttree as lush, like some overgrown forest.

I don’t know that you can really enumerate all the elements that compose style, but here are a few:

  • diction.  What kind of words do you use? Big words or small words, Latinate or Anglo-Saxon, archaic (as in historical fiction) or modern?
  • sentence structure. Do you write complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses or simple, direct sentences? Do you, like McCarthy in The Road, use lots of ands to piece your sentences together or do you clip them short with periods? Do your sentences require a lot of commas?
  • imagery. Do you use sensory information in your writing or do you tend to write in abstractions?
  • rhythm. Do you pay attention to how people speak and try to mimic speech rhythms in your writing? Do you instead try to write long, flowing sentences or staccato, forceful sentences? Or do you mix it up?
  • repetition. Do you work to reduce repetition of words and phrase types or do you emphasize them for rhetorical (or musical, or other) purposes?
  • flow. Do you write highly linear, logical prose in which one thought flows from another or do you skip about and tend to leave impressions rather than direct pathways toward your conclusions or stories?

Of course, different types of writing call for different styles. Journalists tend to keep their sentences and diction simple so that they can convey facts to as broad an audience as possible. Many writers of fiction write in somewhat more distinctive styles and often try to fit the style to the subject matter.

In many cases, style understandably takes a back seat to story. Writers of popular fiction are often more concerned with telling an engaging story than with writing in a distinct style; accordingly, many of these books are virtually indistinguishable from one another stylistically, however varied and rewarding their stories.

In blogging, I think style often maps fairly well to personality. If you tend to be a little reserved (as I do), your writing will tend to be somewhat formal, as mine here has been. My sentence structure has been subordinate and by and large complex (though hopefully not too much so), and the progression of ideas has been fairly linear rather than a disconnected spaghetti of thoughts. By contrast, if you generally write about your kids’ shenanigans or your weekend escapades, chances are pretty good that you’ll bring the formality down a notch, use slang and incomplete sentences, and write less linearly.

Style, then, is often a function of subject matter, audience, and rhetorical purpose. It’s related, in a way, to something known as the linguistic register, which describes how you speak differently in different company. Chances are that you speak to a job interviewer using different types of words and sentences than you use when speaking to your best friend (or your worst enemy). Where your rhetorical aims differ, so does your linguistic register, and so may your writing style.

So, what’s your style? Can you think of ways in which you write differently for different audiences? Should style matter to bloggers?

Show Comments

27 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

  1. I think my own style is typically formal. When I write posts for my blog I’m less formal because I’m not seeking to create the distance that is taken for authority. I try to keep my posts under 500 words so my style has become more compact, word-wise. Style is important to blogs. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading so many. Each one is unique!

  2. I believe style is very important. I do write differently for different audiences, particularly because sometimes I am writing to children, and sometimes to the adults who might be teaching children. I want my writing to be understandable, but interesting, for my targeted audience. You might say I like “flowery” writing–more descriptive and unusual words here and there, along with a mixture of concise and complex sentences. The younger my target audience, the simpler the words and the shorter the sentences as a general rule.
    Style matters for bloggers, for sure. Just as Simone mentioned, all the variations in style are what makes it fun to read so many!

  3. I find that my style so far, is very similar to my conversational style, my writing flows from my brain to the page. However, what is the difference between style and voice? I feel that my style, barring any term papers, is relatively informal but I feel that I’m still searching for my voice, what I truly want to say, write about, do the most of, besides responding to postaday2011 and plinky propmts.

    1. The difference between style and voice is a little muddy for me too. I think of style as the technique used to achieve a voice. For example, to achieve a childlike voice, you would probably write in a style that included short (or long, “and”-filled) sentences and simple word choice. Of course, style doesn’t govern only voice. Your style affects other things like pacing (which builds or relaxes tension). The style of a given piece is like the toolset you’ve chosen to use to achieve a certain set of results, of which one is the voice.

      I suspect there are just about as many definitions of style and voice out there as there are styles and voices, though. :)

  4. Gracias al amigo Daryl LL Houston. WordPress es mucho más que lo que aparentaba. Cada día crece más en función de la escritura por y para tod@s. Excelente iniciativa didáctica. Gracias.

  5. I think that it doesn’t really matter what your style is: as long as it’s a reflection of “you”.
    There is nothing worse than reading something where it’s glaringly obvious that someone is trying too hard and trying to be something they are not.

    I try not to use words in my blog that I wouldn’t use in a real life conversation because for me my blog is like a conversation… on paper.

    People like “genuine” and they even like quirky… the more like “you” your blog is, the more people will warm to your words.

    I find that nothing sells better than passion about your topic and sincerity.

    Happy Blogging everyone!

  6. My style tends to be extremely formal, possibly due to the lack of privacy when publishing or handing in text, I would not want to be caught using immature structure or slang. In my writing I usually build up from a small idea and turn it into something relative, yet completely different. While blogging my style is descriptive and complex, but my school articles do not pollute the paper with details a teen, my age, but with less literacy, would not be able to understand.

  7. Thank you, this is a really thoughtful post – I appreciate it. I’m not sure what my style is…sometimes the words flow easily, tripping from my lips so to speak. At other times, when the ideas are slower in coming, the writing process seems laboured, much like the language used. A lot depends on my frame of mind, whether I’m up and bouncy, or down. In blogging I try to write shorter sentences and short paragraphs because I personally find that style easier to read/scan on screen.

  8. Whilst style is important, if the spelling is poor then whatever has been written loses a great deal of the impact.

  9. I’m not sure what my style is exactly, when blogging I tell it like it is, as I would speak to someone sat next to me. When writing I think I have 2 styles, for short stories that I publish on my blog I like to mix up short bursts of description with realistic dialogue, and less “flowery” language. I’m not a huge fan of endless tracts of narration and endless metaphors to move a story forward. Yet in my longer work, as yet unpublished, I take more time to consider the use of language and as a result I edit out that which fails to add anything to the story.

    Many years ago I was told a writer has 2 voices, their own and their authors voice, and you should never confuse the two, only use your authors voice where fiction is concerned as regional dialect and colloquialisms are a no no when it comes to producing a professional piece of work. Does anyone else think this is right?

    1. I tend to agree that a writer usually has at least two voices. When writing stories, I have trouble settling into a single, consistent voice from one story to the next, partially because it’s fun to inhabit different voices. A person I share my work with has complained that I haven’t settled into a voice he thought was authentically mine, though. He’s sort of right, but that’s in part because I don’t think my voice is as interesting as some of the voices I choose to write in.

      As for regional dialect and colloquialisms, I think it depends on how well you pull it off. It’s very easy to write, bad, stereotypical dialect, and dialect accordingly gets a bad name. Done well and within appropriate context, I think it’s fine and even necessary — you don’t want to write something in which poorly-educated characters from the mountains of the rural South are speaking the Queen’s English, for example. I’m thinking primarily of fiction here. Even in nonfiction, I think you can get away with being a little less formal than some would suggest. It all depends on things like whether you’re trying to put your reader at ease (in which case contractions and less formal diction can be helpful) or trying to set a tone of rigid authority.

  10. As a fiction writer, I like to pride my work on ease of flow. As this article notes, a good fiction writer selects the appropriate style for the piece. A flowery-language approach would have been inappropriate for The Road and a bleak and formal style would never work for Terry Pratchett.

  11. I’ve become very aware of my style for a short time now. For a very long time, most of my writing has been for business reasons. It’s been quite a challenge to drop some of that formality and relax into feeling that I can be more myself when I’m blogging.

    For the type of blogging that I do, it’s really important to just approach it as if ‘talking’ to a friend. I’m getting there, I think!

  12. I’m still trying to figure out which style works and how I’d get to do it. I’d like to write too, but I think writing too personal isn’t always interesting to readers. I guess a little of both personal and formal is okay.

  13. What’s brilliant about blogging is style doesn’t really matter. Or if it does, at least every style is allowed.

    Getting used to “blogging style” though can make it hard for someone to write for a newspaper. I often find it more difficult to write for newspaper lately. In newspaper, every word must count and every sentence must be interesting.

  14. My style is casual, colloquial, and comprehendible. I write like I speak when I post stuff on my blog. When I write for formal audiences or for presentations, my style becomes more sophisticated and intellectual – almost British, in a sense.