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Creating Style in Writing

June 7, 2021

So far we’ve discussed the first three elements of the essay at Southern Adventist University—unity, coherence, and content. The fourth element is style.

Style is the individual manner of expression that each of us has. Unfortunately, young writers might think that a good writing style is simply “being yourself.” That’s true to a degree, but being yourself could simply be a bad style as far as readers’ are concerned. Developing a good style takes effort and knowledge, particularly knowledge of what good writers have done in the past.

Some writers’ styles are so distinctive, say Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s, that people have contests in mimicking those styles.

These days, writing styles are less distinctive than in the past, although there are, of course, exceptions. Today’s style is what might be called “plain.” The purpose of the plain style is clear communication. When we think about it, this style is actually a worthy goal! If I can be clear, I’ve achieved something important.

When we hear highly rhetorical or elegant speeches today, we know that the style is not plain and has probably been written by a professional for a politician or other leader.

Given all this, how should we go about creating a good, plain style?

Well, remember that the strong sentence is the basic unit of essays. A lot of great sentences can make up for bad overall unity and coherence.

Make the short sentence your default style (no more than twenty words). Such a style is actually harder to achieve than you might think. You have really accomplished something when you can create a fine short sentence.

It is actually easier to ramble on than it is to be concise. As one 18C writer said, “I’m sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to shorten it.” We can apply this principle to short sentences as well as to short letters!

With the short sentence as your base, seek to provide variations in sentence styles and lengths. Try to create a rhythmically pleasing whole. The best way to test for the right sound is to read your essays out loud. Most stylistic errors will be fixed with this simple method.

Writers often seek sophistication in their style, which sometimes means they try to create long, convoluted sentences that are complex and apparently “adult.” A short, clear sentence seems too simple and childlike. No, short does not equal childlike!

The short principle leads to a certain kind of ruthless editing of your writing. It’s a grim world out there in reader land. Readers will let any excuse keep them from continuing to read, and difficult prose is a good excuse to ignore what you have written.

Do not be stuck with your first attempt to write a sentence. Sentences have multiple possible forms. Find the one that works best.

There are a couple of kinds of excess that you should avoid. Excessive coordination occurs when a writer adds two clauses together with the lazy use of the word “and.” “I like eating sandwiches, and John is coming over tomorrow.”

Excessive subordination occurs when a writer creates unnecessary sentence complexity. “Because you didn’t brush your teeth consistently, you’ve gotten some decay, which is going to play havoc with your medical expenses some day when you least expect it.” The most commonly misused subordinating word is “which.” Watch out for the clumsy use of “which.” 

With these basics in mind, young writers should set out to find their own voices, their own style. A willingness to experiment is vital. The problem? We are too busy to go from plain to great!