Chapter Ten: What About Style?

You have learned to never use the first person in academic writing. But what should you do when a professor asks you to write about your personal experience? When faced with a question like this or another stylistic dilemma, keep in mind that “rules” for good writing are not universal or unchanging, because what works in one context for a specific audience and purpose might not work for another. In other words, writing is a series of strategic choices.

Writing with Style
What is stylistically appropriate in one argument might be a faux pas – or even a colossal blunder – in another situation. Just like you wouldn’t wear PJs to a funeral, you probably should use slang in a lab report. We define style as “thoughtful flexibility”- the ability to adapt our voice, word choice, sentence structure, rhetorical effects, and document design to different situations, expectations, or demands. With practice, style is something that you can change and adapt, according to the needs of different audiences, purposes, and contexts.

Scholarly Style
To be clear and precise, scholarly style doesn’t have to be boring, nor does it require unnecessarily fancy expression. The universal rule for good style, in scholarly writing or elsewhere, is for it to seem deliberate, with every word and sentence carefully chosen for its particular audience, purpose and situation. Effective scholars try to write compelling prose that cannot possibly be misunderstood.

While we can’t offer foolproof advice for every writing situation, this chapter will help you think strategically about your stylistic choices. Before we delve into the details of style, let’s focus on some fundamentals.

High Order and Later Order Concerns
Scholars typically concentrate on big-picture concerns in early drafts and more minute concerns later. Revision focuses on higher order concerns, like focus, development, organization and whether our ideas make sense. As we discuss ini chapter 1, experienced writers invest ample time in revising before we edit for later order concerns, like grammar, punctuation, and so forth. Here are three good reasons not to worry about polishing your prose until you have your ideas carved out.

  1. Perfectionism can cause writer’s block. Your mind has enough to do without trying to articulate your ideas perfectly the first time, especially when you are grappling with complex concepts and arguments. As an alternative, we like to free write during early drafts, which allows us to develop and organize our ideas before we nitpick over punctuation and sentence-level choices.
  1. Polishing can waste time and energy while you are still sculpting. Every time you reorganize, add, or delete content, you will have to refinish your writing,
  2. Editing while drafting is less effective because it is difficult to concentrate on everything at once. Returning to our writing after putting it down for a day or more gives us a fresh perspective, which helps us find more errors and opportunities to improve style.

Mechanics
Often we head students clump all alter order concerns together under value headings like “grammar” or “flow.” But the imprecise terms do not convey exactly what students are referring to: punctuation, transitions, sentence structure, verb tense, or any number of considerations.

Accurate, precise terminology can enable writers to think and communicate more carefully about their writing. For example, writers can ask for specific assistance from peer reviewers or tutors when they use terms that communicate their exact needs. Plus, we have noticed that writers who talk vaguely about their writing often are less sure about what they really need to work on. To be more precise, we use the term mechanics to refer only to sentence-level concerns, which include spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and usage.

Errors
Even though hardly anyone speaks or writes with perfect mechanics all the time, most educated readers expect standard academic English in formal writing. For example, consider how mechanics, specifically, punctuation, can modify meaning:

• A woman, without her man, is nothing
• A woman: without her, man is nothing

Do you notice how these sentences mean something very different? This is the main reason why educated reader’s value proper mechanics: they value precise meaning and want readers to say what they mean clearly and deliberately. Errors add confusion. Errors cause readers to work harder to make sense of what we are trying to say.

Even when they do not seriously impair meaning, errors diminish credibility because of the potential for imprecision or miscommunication. Educated readers will likely interpret errors as signs of laziness or ignorance.

Grammar versus Usage
Grammar and usage are not the same, and experience writers know the difference. Simply put, “grammar” involves the rules for how we use language traditionally or formally, while “usage” is how most people actually use language in everyday conversations.

Punctuation
Punctuation marks, like commas and colons, make our writing more readable: we can prevent confusion and reading fatigue by correctly punctuating sentences. Punctuation marks help us communicate clearly. In fact, these marks can even help us emphasize our argument and persuade readers subtly. When deciding how to punctuate a sentence, we ask ourselves: How are the ideas in these sentences related? What level of connection do they have with each other?

  1. A period is used to show full separation between ideas. Each sentence can “stand” on its own, independently.
  1. A dash is used to set apart-especially to emphasize or to elaborate-one portion of a sentence. Often, dashes direct the reader’s attention toward the end of a sentence, but they can also highlight the middle portion of a sentence when two dashes are used like brackets. Writers can also use commas or parentheses to mark off a part of a sentence, but the dash has a different effect. Putting commas or parentheses around something suggests that it is less important, while dashes are used to emphasize the separated portion.
  1. A colon is used in two main ways: (1) to introduce a list and (2) to combine two independent sentences, where the first part of the sentence introduces the ideas of the second part.
  1. A semicolon is used to connect closely related ideas that could be separated into two sentences but demonstrate a stronger connection when joined by a semicolon. The semicolon allows writers to elaborate or clarify one idea with another closely related one.

Voice
You have probably heard teacher talk about finding your authentic “voice” when you write. Readers in the humanities often like to “hear” a human writer as they read. In other disciplines, such as the sciences, audiences commonly expect a more objective sounding, “voiceless” style.

Neither approach is wrong, In fact, the more styles writers can master, the more flexibility they have to adapt to different situations. Verbs can make a big difference in how readers “hear” our writing. Scholarly writing often employs active voice, where the doer of the action comes before the object.

Clarity and Vividness
Although imitation can help writers develop style, sometimes apprentice scholars try to emulate the dense, highly technical style that they read in published scholarship. Trying too hard to sound smart can sacrifice clarity. The result is wordy, convoluted, confusing prose that overworks readers.

Use Strong Verbs
Sometimes writers nominalize verbs by turning them into nouns. For instance, “express” becomes “expression”, and “communicate” becomes “communication.” Nominalized sentences can become clunky or unclear because they are overloaded with prepositions and excessive words.

Remember, Less Can Be More
While explanations and descriptions are necessary to communicate our full arguments, most readers appreciate when we spare them from wading through more words than necessary.

Vivid and Precise Language
Using descriptive language and varying your vocabulary choices can help you incorporate details into your writing that help readers feel, see, and experience your message. However, this style does not work in every situation. When the audience values brevity and clarity, as is often the case in business or scientific writing, literary flourishes fail. Chemists do not want flowery lab reports, and bosses do not necessarily like business proposals that rhyme.

Creative Choice We Make to Improve Style
The best news about improving style is that it is something you can practice on your own.

Imitation
One way to develop a range of style is to practice imitating other writers whom you admire.

Imitation is an ancient and useful technique to write. Imagine, for example, that you were going to apply for a job but had never written an application letter or resume. Unlike in school writing, your audience would likely not provide detailed instructions for this assignment. Scholars often do the same thing when they want to write an article. Once they find a journal that their intended audience reads and that fits their topic, they study articles in the journal to create a set of instructions.

• What is the typical length of articles?
• How are they usually organized?
• What style is typical? Do writers tend to write more or less formally?

Sentence Variation
Another technique for improving style is sentence variation, which was popular during the renaissance and used by great writers like Ben Franklin.

Few strategies for revision:
• Rhetorical Variation
• Amplification
• Linguistic variation
• Genre translation

Figures of Speech
Rhetorical “figures” are useful tools for enriching style. You probably learned some while studying literature, for example:

• Metaphor
• Analogy
• Hyperbole
• Sarcasm

Figures of speech can also incur some risks such as:

• Reference failure
• Inappropriate style
• Misinterpretation
• Clichés

Visual Design
Syle is not only cultivated in the language we use. Carefully crafted visual elements can help us compose arguments in clear, vivid, and compelling ways. We can use capitalization, bold, italics, or even formatting for emphasis.

Writing Emails
Whether or not we blog regularly or create website, we write many e-mails in school and in the workplace. To use e-mail effectively, consider the following suggestions.

• Explicit greetings, including our reader’s title or name. We usually do not just burst into writing unless we are engaged in an ongoing e-mail exchange. Email is not text messaging.
• Some introduction of who we are, if unknown to our audience, and why we are writing.
• An explicit question or statement of what you want or need.
• A polite closing.

Proofreading and Editing
Reading your writing aloud is very effective technique that does not require much expertise but yields great results. Doing so slows down your reading and exercises more parts of your brain and body, so you can be more successful editing for clarity and correctness.

Reviewing with Others
You can also invite a trusted friend, classmate, or writing center tutor to read your work aloud.
We also ask reviewers questions like:
• How does the writing sound, is the tone appropriate?
• Are there any sentences that are confusing, awkward, or otherwise unclear?
• Are there any word choices that are vague, confusing, or overly technical?
• Where can the writing be more concise? Where can I reduce unnecessary wordiness?
• Where should I combine or divide sentences?
• Where do you see mistakes, such as missing commas, subject-verb agreement problems, or misspellings?
• Where. If appropriates, might I add more personality, through humor or vividness or other stylistic devices?

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