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Perennial Favorites: What’s Your Style?

What’s your blogging style? From diction to rhythm to imagery to sentence structure, explore some of the writing elements that make you YOU.

Daryl L.L. Houston, former Daily Post oracle for all things grammar, hasn’t written here for a while but is far from forgotten. Here’s one of our favorite of his pieces, on writing style  — something many of us constantly play with as bloggers.

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?

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  1. For me the best thing about the blogosphere is the diversity of writing styles and blog types, so I found this really interesting. Although I’m relatively new to it I try to keep things light hearted when I’m posting about my escapades. I generally just try to be myself in the hope that my personality comes through in my writing.

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  2. Do I care about “my style”? I want to share my journey with…well with whoever might be interested. It’s more a “pay it forward” thing to me “maybe my experience might help one smoker to quit as well”. So the answer to the question “Nope! I don’t care about my writing style I care about the message!

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  3. In writing non-fiction pieces whatever the topic I think a distinct style comes through a blogger’s voice, and more easily detected than in fiction works when a writer is trying to fit a ‘voice’ to match the character or characters portrayed. I think it is important for the writer of any fiction work to convey the uniqueness of that character, his/her POV (point of view) ‘voice’ so as to be convincing and believable for that time, place and location. The authors’ works above are good examples of that.

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    1. Good point on how the nonfiction voice better reveals the writer’s style. Feels like it should because the writer’s writing about him/herself

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      1. Most definitely, if the writer is honest and candid in his/her writing. One reader said once she could not find my real voice in my writing (non-fiction, as I do both), and I could not really understand why, but then she does not read my posts or blog much anyway, and has not known me long, either, so though perhaps that is why she interpreted it differently than those who do. I have always thought that to know one is to know the things they write, but for those who do not write or blog, maybe they are better known by what they say and do.

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  4. I am not sure I am a good one to comment but I will say that I don’t like reading something that I must have a dictionary open just to understand what was written. I think many people who are not literary majors can struggle with the deep utilization of words only know by some intellectual scholar. If it is technical in nature there are times specific words may be required. However, anytime I can keep it an easy read I attempt to do so. That is just my personality and my writing follows it. I was once told that each of us are born and develop a personality during our early years and when we start doing things outside of how we are built we become less effective and subjected to failure. With that said I truly believe we need to continue development of our personality until our time on earth is gone.

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  5. I like to read blogs which has good interesting topics using simple, easy to understand words. But I also go through blogs from which I can learn new words and improve my vocabulary. Most of all, content matters. I am a beginner and I enjoy the diversity in blogs.

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  6. Interesting you brought up this topic. I’ve been writing my lifestyle blog for about a year and a half. It covers many topics. Several of my current friends say that my blog voice is different from my personality. Many people have said they love my writing style and that it’s so me. I chose a voice and style when I started and I’m sticking to it.

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  7. I do read a lot and you’re right, much of the popular fiction these days have a similar style. It’s really a bonus if the style is unique as well- those are the books that stick in your mind. I’m wrong a novel currently and I for one know that I’m not going to bother too much with style- as long as you can get a good sense of my characters and of course the plot then the writing has done it’s job. With speech I do try to use different styles though, whatever suits the character most and shows their personality.
    I think my blogging style is a lot different. I write how I speak-there’s nothing in my writing that I wouldn’t say when talking. People have said that when they read what I’ve written they can hear me saying it in their heads. So I guess my writing and speaking style are the same?

    -The Ace

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  8. As a creative non-fiction writer, my writing style tends to mimic the way I talk. When I do write fiction, I have to make a conscious effort to have the narrator NOT sound like myself, and this is one of the biggest struggles for me as a writer. It’s also partially why I don’t write a lot of fiction. I know the more I practice the better I’ll get at it, but when I try, it comes out sounding stiff and forced (probably because it’s being forced out). I’d love to know how other writer’s mix up their style to match different characters or even different genres, For example, does your style differ when you write sci-fi versus fantasy versus horror? Or is it just your voice that changes, as you write from the POV of different narrators and characters?

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  9. I like to think style is everything. Those writers who have a distinct style are capable of drawing you in with a couple of brushstrokes. They grab hold of you with vehemence. Knuckles whitening as their grip tightens around your mind. You know you should stop reading because your wife is speaking to you. The sandy whisper of a page being turned and something about dinner being served. It’s all just a backdrop. You don’t know it but the words yes honey escape from your lips. One more paragraph. The end. You face her in mock ignorance of her presence. Boy you look stupid when she says: “can you repeat what I’ve just said to you.”

    Fade to black.

    I can’t think of anything to say about my style except that I probably still have to discover it. But to answer the question about style mattering to bloggers, I have to say I think it definitely should. Style is a big part of what keeps us reading . If writing is a battle between writer and reader then style is what the slingshot was to David when — fcuk it you got me.

    In the words of H.L Mencken, “There are no dull subjects./There are only dull writers.”

    Write on my friends, right on.

    Trésor Karera

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  10. I write how I speak. If I’m struggling with a sentence, I read it out loud. That always helps. If I am trying to convey an action or image, I picture it in my mind and describe it to an imaginary audience. I think style definitely matters to bloggers, that is what it is all about. If a blog didn’t have style it might as well be wikipedia.

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  11. As a book reader, I believe style is what makes me wait for the next book from that particular writer.

    As a blog reader, the shorter, the better. Who has the time of the day to keep up with so much online reading? we only have 24hrs/day.

    Interesting subject and definitely a fav. perennial.

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    1. This is my first comment via this media … On styles and other recommendations I happened to find something of interest to which I am interested in replying to . On your Remark Purple Needle . Your Mention of “We only have 24 hours a day ” tis strange how we divide then multiply … Something like give and take … Its often in those special moments we catch the glimmer , the sparkle of the shine … We place our limitations not on what we know but what we understand . Now Time is as slippery and elusive as we eventually find . Not being able to grasp the concept of that which is taught is what we learn . The invisible commodity used liberally and extensively … Now if only I had more time I Would be able to convey these thoughts that wait like soldiers to enter the fray … Make their mark for whatever reason they may . For whatever reason the time of Day . Where time no longer notices how long it should take . In proportions of Epic the Longest Day . I have just managed to say Hello to you , not as part of the Day in hours minutes and seconds . But a moment well spent … Along the way …. Happy Mothers Day .

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  12. Mu style changes with whatever works. It’s conversational most of the time but I also write essay style posts on specific subjects which are written in a style more like a magazine feature.

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    1. That’s very interesting … There are myriads of facets one can indulge just browsing the Styles … Each one a Gem in their own right , each one shines special . The trick is to enter the rusty gate and tread the path least used …

      Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom – let your email find you!

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  13. I think style is something you can play around with, even after you find your favourite or one that ‘works’ for you. I tend to write long sentences (such a problem while writing prose essays!), and use a lot of punctuation and other speech devices to get my point across, but after I started to read more contemporary literature, I’ve started trying other things. Also, I write a fair bit of poetry, and keep trying to incorporate that style in my fledgeling story-writing skills.

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  14. Couldn’t agree more with most of these comments! Different styles are very important. Part of the beauty of an authors writing style, weather it be prose, articles or blog posts, is that it is not a conscious thing. I am an aspiring writer, and while writing prose, my style just puts itself on the page; my brain has a way it likes to tell my story and the rest is history.

    Check out my new blog: http://thewritersgame.wordpress.com

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  15. Style is a great topic of conversation for bloggers! Because blogs are usually like short vignettes, blogging gives us a chance to experiment with lots of different styles and voices as a writer, and suit them to various scenarios and circumstances. And the question of style is a little like the old nature vs nurture debate–sure, it can be an inherent offshoot of personality, but it is also mutable depending on the story, the audience, the factors we manipulate for our purposes.

    Anyhoo, great observations!

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  16. Personally, I’ve been experimenting with different types, depending on what type of writing I’m attempting to execute. Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at short story fiction, blog entry style to see how that fits.
    -Kenneth Lee Averiett

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  17. Writing is a medium of expressing ideas and facts. To be a successful writer one needs to deliver a message to readers precisely and in a manner that will keep readers interested in a chosen topic. So style plays a very important role in conveying a message. It should be worked out based on target readers, requirement of topic and a writer’s personality.
    I cannot imagine myself, back in school day, writing English paper the same way I wrote History paper.
    The best way is to write in a way which will do justice to your topic. In the process styles will get developed as per demands of subjects.

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