Writing Criteria, Part Four: Style

Some writers believe style is something you either have or don’t, but like most things, good style can be learned.

By Patricia Roy — March 10, 2023

Writing Criteria, Part Four: Style

"Fashion changes, but style endures."

— Coco Chanel

Style intimidates student writers because the word can mean different things. Written style is often confused with conventions or grammar, but it is neither of these. Rather, style refers to language choices, such as sentence variety, diction, and tone. Some writers believe style is something you either have or don't, but like most things, good style can be learned.

What is "Good" Style?

First, let's dispel the notion that elegant writing always follows a set of rules. The English language is full of contradictions and exceptions, and the "rules" change over time. In fact, most of the rules are really heuristics, which means they are guidelines and not absolute.

Good style refers to word choice and structures that suit the situation, aid readability, and create pleasant consistency or cadence. While some genres or fields of study have strict style conventions, the following tips should serve you for most rhetorical situations.

Sentence Variety is the Spice

If all of your sentences are the same length or follow the same pattern, they will be boring to read. Prevent stale, predictable prose by:

  • Using a variety of sentence lengths and styles, including cumulative and periodic sentences
  • Avoiding wordiness
  • Using active and passive voice correctly
  • Using parallel structures

Cumulative Sentences

In these structures, the independent clause begins the sentence and is followed by a series of additional phrases and clauses, all describing the original idea.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." (Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence)

In this example, the details of the self-evident truths accumulate in a succession of clauses beginning with "that," all describing the original statement. Cumulative sentences often flow when describing a scene in detail. They have a pleasing, prosaic quality when used appropriately.

Periodic Sentences

These are the opposite of cumulative sentences. In these structures, the emphasis or main idea occurs at the end of a list of descriptive phrases or clauses.

"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." (Also Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence)

In this example, the periodic structure adds to the weight of what is being proposed — the separation from Great Britain. This style of sentence is often used to create a sense of anticipation or suspense, like an announcer winding up to reveal the winner of a prize.

Be Concise: Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Good writing doesn't waste words. Students write wordy essays not because they use too many words but because they struggle to find the right ones.

On the subject of conciseness, the standard advice can seem contradictory. On the one hand, teachers tell you to use fewer words, while on the other hand they might tell you to give more details or increase your vocabulary. Adding details is a development (to Writing Criteria Part2: Development) concern not related to style. Also, increasing your vocabulary doesn't just mean using fancy words you barely understand — it can also mean using simpler words more effectively. For example, here are some common wordy expressions along with their preferred substitutions:

Instead of — Write this
in light of the fact because
in order to to
in order to to
in terms of for, in or of
a majority of most or specify how much
communicate with talk, write, speak
by means of by, via
due to the fact that because
utilize use

A caveat: Never sacrifice clarity for brevity. If what you have to say is complex, layered, or philosophical — hurray for deep thought! Don't fail to support your arguments just to use fewer words.

Active vs. Passive Voice: Mistakes Have Been Made...

Another way to cut down on wordy expressions is to employ active verbs over passive ones. Active voice occurs when the actor of a verb is the subject of the clause. In contrast, passive voice obscures this relationship:

(Active): Bert collected the paper clips.

(Passive): The paper clips were collected by Bert.

Not only does active voice require fewer words, it clarifies the relationship between the actor and the action. Active voice often sounds better.

So, why does passive voice exist? There are several legitimate uses of passive voice, and knowing them can help your style tremendously.

Use the Passive Voice:

1. When the actor is unknown or irrelevant.

(Unknown): "The monolith at Newgrange in Ireland was constructed about 3200 BCE."

(Irrelevant): "Solar panels will be given to all residential customers."

2. To be deliberately vague.

"Your password was leaked during the security breach." (Here, an entity obscures its responsibility).

3. To write about methods or procedures, especially in the sciences.

"The solution was heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit." (This emphasizes the procedure, not the person doing it).

Parallel Structures Sound Better

When writing a list of words, phrases, or clauses, keep all the items parallel, or in the same form:

1. With gerunds (—ing phrases):

(Faulty): "Tom likes singing, dancing, and to slay dragons."

(Parallel): "Tom likes singing, dancing, and slaying dragons."

2. With infinitives (to + verb):

(Faulty): "Sharyn likes to doodle, set fires, and stamp collecting."

(Parallel): "Sharyn likes to doodle, set fires, and collect stamps." (Note: "to" can either occur before each item or just before the first as in this example).

3. In lists after colons:

(Faulty): "Tik Tok can be used to publish the following: funny cat memes, dance videos, and how to decorate a cake."

(Parallel): "Tik Tok can be used to publish the following: funny cat memes, dance videos, and cake-decorating instructions."

4. With clauses:

(Faulty): "The maester told the king that winter was coming, that the North remembers, and to skip the last season of Game of Thrones."

(Parallel): "The maester told the king that winter was coming, that the North remembers, and that the last season of Game of Thrones wasn't very good."

Word Choice: Flex Connotation, Avoid Clichès

As with sentence types, varying your words will make your writing more interesting. However, it's not enough to just reach for a thesaurus. Learn the connotations of similar words to determine usage and affect tone. For example, "remember" and "reminisce" are synonyms, but while the former means to recall the past, the latter is to think about fondly, with a touch of nostalgia. These synonyms evoke a different tone and are not interchangeable.

While I encourage students to use language they are familiar with, I would dissuade them from using phrases that are too familiar. Clichès are timeworn and overused expressions that dull the brightness of your message behind meaningless figures of speech. The occasional cliché can establish an intimate tone, but student writers should be discouraged from using them. Common cliches in student writing are "wouldn't be caught dead," "the rest is history," and "happily ever after."

My favorite quotation about clichés comes from Janet Fitch, author of the 1999 novel White Oleander: "A clichè is everything you've ever heard before." You don't have to achieve this high standard, but the effort will be worthwhile.

Make sure to revise your next writing assignment with these tips in mind!

Patricia Roy

Patricia Roy

Patricia Roy is a writer and professor who has helped students succeed for over 25 years. She started her career as a high school English teacher and then moved into higher education at Tuition Rewards member school, Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts. Her practical guidance and enthusiasm motivate and inspire students to fearlessly explore their own passions. Professor Roy is also a freelance writer and published poet.
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