Dahliani Reynolds, PhD
When you get dressed to go to class, what’s your go-to attire? Do you automatically grab sweats and a t-shirt? Do you have an internship later in the day, requiring that you aim for business casual? Whatever your go-to style, it probably feels comfortable as part of your daily life—almost a part of your identity. We tend to think of personal style as, well, personal. It’s YOUR style, after all. You get to choose it. Of course, it’s also true that your stylistic choices are almost always influenced by others. Your style has likely changed over time, due in part to fashion trends, what others decree are in style. Sometimes your stylistic choices are determined by the situation. For example, when you dress to attend a fancy wedding, you’d likely make clothing choices that you wouldn’t make if you were going to class, or to the grocery store. In all of these clothing situations, your sense of style is formed not only by situation but by a variety of factors including your own preferences and what others find fashionable and/or appropriate to the situation.
These same stylistic considerations for your clothing choices apply to your writing choices. Many of your writing choices contribute to your writing style. The tone you adopt is a stylistic choice. Likewise, your choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, and syntax all contribute to style. These are your choices to make as a writer—but your choices are often influenced by how you expect your readers to perceive them. You probably wouldn’t include emojis on your resume because you could reasonably expect potential employers to be unimpressed by that stylistic choice. On the other hand, if you are writing a lab report for your chemistry professor, you would choose to avoid first-person pronouns, because you know your prof will expect the appearance of scientific objectivity in your language (style) choices. Notice how in each of these examples, audience, purpose, and rhetorical situation influence style.
Writing style is sometimes defined as the way you write, the things that make your writing identifiably yours. When we think about style in terms of personal style, we often consider voice. Does the writing sound like you? Voice can be a useful consideration for some genres and purposes, but it can be a limiting metaphor when we think of voice only as an expression of self. The voice you produce on the page doesn’t have to “sound” like you—and, in fact, sometimes it shouldn’t. If you are working in a genre that privileges objectivity, that de-emphasizes the writer in favor of the information (think a scientific study or business report), then a conversational voice or colloquial tone will not serve you well. Your readers won’t care that the text “sounds” like you; in fact, it could potentially devalue the information if it does because it conflicts with genre conventions.
Broadening how we think about style—beyond the “voice” metaphor—opens the door to the other sorts of stylistic concerns noted above: vocabulary, sentence structure, and syntax. Many writing guides frame style advice in terms of clarity and concision, suggesting that style requires clear and concise writing. This is generally good advice. Writing should be clear; readers should understand what you are trying to communicate. Of course, as you know, readers from different discourse communities have divergent sensibilities regarding clarity. For example, using key terms from business would be very clear in a business report written for industry professionals, but not in a literary analysis for digital humanities scholars. Clarity, like most writing considerations, is contingent on audience, purpose, and genre.
Concision (often paired with clarity) is likewise dependent on these same kinds of variables, and is also predicated on the scope of your project. Concision is often confused with brevity; in other words, in order to be concise you must be brief. This is a little misleading though, because it really depends on the necessary level of detail to achieve your purpose. If your purpose is to create a one-page fact sheet outlining major challenges to students transitioning from face-to-face to online instruction, the level of detail expected is significantly less than if writing a white-page paper on the same subject. Expectations for the level of detail in these two genres will vary substantially. With both texts you should aim for concision: that is, conveying what you need to convey with the minimum number of words, but the “minimum” will not be the same for both texts.
There is copious style advice available online and in print textbooks. Key to all recommendations is to focus on the sentence level. Working on style requires close reading of your own writing, going sentence by sentence to test different options. How might the effect of a sentence change if you use a semicolon or a dash? What if you replace this word with that? Cut an adverb? Combine two sentences into one? Convert from passive to active voice? These are important editorial questions to address in later stages of the writing process. Tackle them too early and you’re likely to have difficulty generating text; forget to take them on in the revision and editing stages, and you’re likely to end up with a text that does not pass the “style” test in your readers’ eyes.