Writing style

In literature, writing style is the manner of expressing thought in language characteristic of an individual, period, school, or nation.[1] As Bryan Ray notes, however, style is a broader concern, one that can describe "readers' relationships with, texts, the grammatical choices writers make, the importance of adhering to norms in certain contexts and deviating from them in others, the expression of social identity, and the emotional effects of particular devices on audiences."[2] Thus, style is a term that may refer, at one and the same time, to singular aspects of an individual's writing habits or a particular document and to aspects that go well-beyond the individual writer.[3] Beyond the essential elements of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, writing style is the choice of words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure, used to convey the meaning effectively.[4] The former are referred to as rules, elements, essentials, mechanics, or handbook; the latter are referred to as style, or rhetoric.[5] The rules are about what a writer does; style is about how the writer does it. While following the rules drawn from established English usage, a writer has great flexibility in how to express a concept.[6] The point of good writing style is to

  • express the message to the reader simply, clearly, and convincingly;[7][8][9][10]
  • keep the reader attentive, engaged, and interested;[11][12]

not to

  • display the writer's personality;[13]
  • demonstrate the writer's skills, knowledge, or abilities;[14][15]

although these are usually evident and are what experts consider the writer's individual style.[16][17]

Choice of words

Diction, or the choice of words, is obviously a central element in every writer's style. Although good diction is partly a matter of trial and error, of tinkering with sentences until they sound right, it is also a matter of following certain general preferences that careful readers and writers tend to share.[18]

Some methods for using diction effectively in writing:

  • Use a dictionary and thesaurus[19][20]
  • Seek a middle level of diction[21][22]
  • Call things by their names[23]
  • Avoid redundancy and circumlocution[24][25][26]
  • Avoid clichés[27][28][29]
  • Avoid jargon[30][31]
  • Avoid obsolete, archaic, or invented words[32]
  • Avoid slang, regional expressions, and nonstandard English[33][34]
  • Avoid qualifiers[35][36]
  • Avoid fancy words[37][38]
  • Use words in their established senses[39]
  • Avoid offensive or sexist language[40][41]
  • Say no more than you mean[42]
  • Be as concrete as your meaning allows[43][44][45]
  • Use logical terms precisely[46]
  • Put statements in positive form[47][48][49]
  • Make metaphors vivid and appropriate[50][51]
  • Prefer vivid nouns and active verbs to adjectives and adverbs[52][53][54]

Choice of sentence structure

Sooner or later, a writer will have the essential elements of formal sentence correctness under control and will want to find the best ways of making sentences convey meaning effectively: how to phrase statements definitely, place coordinate thoughts in coordinate structures, subordinate to sharpen the relation between main assertions and modifying elements, eliminate unnecessary words, vary sentence structure, maintain consistency of tone, and smooth the general flow of words. Seemingly minor improvements—the moving of a clause from one position to another, a shift from the passive to the active voice, even a slight change in rhythm—can make the difference between drab sentences and pointed ones.[55]

Some methods for writing effective sentences:

  • Avoid irrelevancy[56]
  • Make real assertions[57]
  • Rely on the active voice[58][59][60]
  • Coordinate to show that ideas belong together[61][62]
  • Repeat words, phrases, and clauses for emphasis[63]
  • Make series consistent and climactic[64]
  • Subordinate to show which is the main statement[65][66]
  • Subordinate to avoid monotony[67][68]
  • Subordinate to break up lengthy compound sentences[69]
  • Choose an appropriate means of subordination[70][71]
  • Place subordinate elements where they will convey the exact meaning[72]
  • Subordinate in one direction per sentence[73]
  • Be concise but do not omit necessary words[74][75][76][77]
  • Break the monopoly of declarative sentences[78][79]
  • Vary the order and complexity of sentence elements[80][81][82][83]
  • Vary the length of the sentences.[84]
  • Be consistent[85]
  • Avoid distracting repetitions of sound[86]
  • Listen for sentence rhythm[87][88][89]
  • Use parallel construction[90][91][92]
  • Keep related words together[93][94]

Choice of paragraph structure

The most important unit of meaning in every literary work is the paragraph. Although each sentence conveys a thought, a literary work is not just a sequence of, say, eighty thoughts; it is rather a development of one central thesis through certain steps. Those steps are paragraphs. Within an effective paragraph the sentences support and extend one another in various ways, making a single, usually complex, unfolding idea.[95]

Apart from outright incoherence, choppiness, or long-windedness, perhaps the most common flaw in paragraph construction is rigidity of presentation. Having something to say, the writer merely says it—and goes on to do just the same in the following paragraph. As a result, the reader feels, not like a participant in the writer's thought, but like someone receiving instructions or being shown a rapid succession of images.[96]

Some methods for writing effective paragraphs:


Note how rewriting the familiar sentence, "These are the times that try men's souls." by Thomas Paine, changes the overall impact of the message.

Times like these try men's souls.
How trying it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for men's souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.[117]

Compare the following passages, and note how the authors convey their messages in different manners, as a result of their choices.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2 (1599–1602) by William Shakespeare:

HAMLET. I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king and queen moult no feather. I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how expressed and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.[118]

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.[119]

Memories of Christmas (1945) by Dylan Thomas:

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years, around the sea-town corner now, and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six; or whether the ice broke and the skating grocer vanished like a snowman through a white trap-door on that same Christmas Day that the mince-pies finished Uncle Arnold and we tobogganed down the seaward hill, all the afternoon, on the best tea-tray, and Mrs. Griffiths complained, and we threw a snowball at her niece, and my hands burned so, with the heat and the cold, when I held them in front of the fire, that I cried for twenty minutes and then had some jelly.[120]

"The Strawberry Window" (1955) by Ray Bradbury:

In his dream he was shutting the front door with its strawberry windows and lemon windows and windows like white clouds and windows like clear water in a country stream. Two dozen panes squared round the one big pane, colored of fruit wines and gelatins and cool water ices. He remembered his father holding him up as a child. "Look!" And through the green glass the world was emerald, moss, and summer mint. "Look!" The lilac pane made livid grapes of all the passers-by. And at last the strawberry glass perpetually bathed the town in roseate warmth, carpeted the world in pink sunrise, and made the cut lawn seem imported from some Persian rug bazaar. The strawberry window, best of all, cured people of their paleness, warmed the cold rain, and set the blowing, shifting February snows afire.[121]

Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.[122]

Writer's voice

The writer's voice is a metaphorical term by which some critics refer to distinctive features of a written work in terms of spoken utterance. The voice of a literary work is then the specific group of characteristics displayed by the narrator or poetic "speaker" (or, in some uses, the actual author behind them), assessed in terms of tone, style, or personality. Distinctions between various kinds of narrative voice tend to be distinctions between kinds of narrator in terms of how they address the reader (rather than in terms of their perception of events, as in the distinct concept of point of view). Likewise in non-narrative poems, distinctions can be made between the personal voice of a private lyric and the assumed voice (the persona) of a dramatic monologue.[123]

An author uses sentence patterns not only to make a point or tell a story, but to do it in a certain manner that amounts to a personal signature, a characteristic way of presenting reality. It is perfectly understandable that an aspiring writer could fall in love with the work of a brilliant literary figure (for example, William Faulkner or William S. Burroughs) and then try to emulate that literary voice, but when an amateur aims deliberately for the sort of mature voice found in seasoned professionals, the result is likely to be literarily pretentious and largely unreadable. In fact, this sort of literary pretentiousness is a clear mark of an amateur. A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want and is something any writer can bring out in himself or herself, but oddly enough, it can't be produced by concentrating on it, nor can it be imparted by an editor or teacher. Such an effect is achieved simply by writing often and carefully. Spending creative energy in the service of the way sentences read as prose is likely to be at the expense of the characters or story. Writers should concentrate on characters and story and let their voice take care of itself.[124][125]

Writing coaches, teachers, and authors of creative writing books often speak of the writer's voice as distinguished from other literary elements.[126][127] However, as voice is often described vaguely, their distinction may be only superficial. In some instances, voice is defined nearly the same as style;[128][129] in others, as genre,[130] literary mode,[131][132] point of view,[133] mood,[134] or tone.[135][136]


  1. Webster (1969)
  2. Ray, Brian (2015). Style: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. Fort Collins, CO: U of Colorado P; WAC Clearinghouse. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-60235-614-6.
  3. Aquilina (2014)
  4. Sebranek et al. (2006, p. 111)
  5. Crews (1977, pp. 100,129,156)
  6. Strunk & White (1979, p. 66)
  7. Hacker (1991, p. 78)
  8. Ross-Larson (1991, p. 17)
  9. Sebranek et al. (2006, pp. 85,99,112)
  10. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 69,79,81)
  11. Ross-Larson (1991, pp. 18–19)
  12. Sebranek et al. (2006, pp. 21,26,112)
  13. Gardner (1991, p. 163)
  14. Sebranek et al. (2006, p. 112)
  15. Strunk & White (1979, p. 69)
  16. Ross-Larson (1999, p. 18)
  17. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 66,68)
  18. Crews (1977, p. 100)
  19. Crews (1977, pp. 100–105)
  20. Hacker (1991, pp. 187–189,191)
  21. Crews (1977, pp. 105–106)
  22. Hacker (1991, pp. 176–178,181–182)
  23. Crews (1977, pp. 106–107)
  24. Crews (1977, pp. 107–108)
  25. Hacker (1991, pp. 166–172)
  26. Lamb (2008, pp. 225–226)
  27. Crews (1977, pp. 108–109)
  28. Hacker (1991, pp. 194–196)
  29. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 80–81)
  30. Crews (1977, pp. 109–111)
  31. Hacker (1991, pp. 175–176)
  32. Hacker (1991, p. 179)
  33. Hacker (1991, pp. 180–181,192–193)
  34. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 75–76,81–84)
  35. Lamb (2008, p. 225)
  36. Strunk & White (1979, p. 73)
  37. Lamb (2008, p. 227)
  38. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 76–78)
  39. Crews (1977, pp. 111–112)
  40. Crews (1977, pp. 112–113)
  41. Hacker (1991, pp. 183–185)
  42. Crews (1977, p. 114)
  43. Crews (1977, pp. 114–116)
  44. Hacker (1991, pp. 190–191)
  45. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 21–23)
  46. Crews (1977, p. 116)
  47. Crews (1977, pp. 116–117)
  48. Lamb (2008, pp. 228–229)
  49. Strunk & White (1979, p. 19)
  50. Crews (1977, pp. 117–121)
  51. Lamb (2008, p. 229)
  52. Hacker (1991, pp. 151–152)
  53. Lamb (2008, p. 224)
  54. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 71–72)
  55. Crews (1977, p. 129)
  56. Crews (1977, pp. 129–130)
  57. Crews (1977, p. 130)
  58. Crews (1977, pp. 130–131)
  59. Lamb (2008, p. 223)
  60. Strunk & White (1979, p. 18)
  61. Crews (1977, pp. 131–133)
  62. Hacker (1991, pp. 110–111,116–117)
  63. Crews (1977, pp. 133–134)
  64. Crews (1977, pp. 134–135)
  65. Crews (1977, pp. 135–136)
  66. Hacker (1991, pp. 111–113)
  67. Crews (1977, p. 137)
  68. Hacker (1991, pp. 114–115)
  69. Crews (1977, pp. 137–138)
  70. Crews (1977, p. 138)
  71. Hacker (1991, pp. 118–119)
  72. Crews (1977, pp. 138–140)
  73. Crews (1977, pp. 140–141)
  74. Crews (1977, pp. 141–142)
  75. Hacker (1991, pp. 126–130)
  76. Lamb (2008, pp. 222–223,226,228)
  77. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 23–25)
  78. Crews (1977, p. 143)
  79. Hacker (1991, pp. 161–162)
  80. Crews (1977, pp. 144–145)
  81. Hacker (1991, pp. 157–161)
  82. Lamb (2008, p. 226)
  83. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 32–33)
  84. Crews (1977, p. 145)
  85. Crews (1977, pp. 146–148)
  86. Crews (1977, pp. 148–149)
  87. Crews (1977, pp. 149–151)
  88. Gardner (1991, pp. 150–154)
  89. Lamb (2008, pp. 227–228)
  90. Hacker (1991, pp. 121–124,155–156)
  91. Lamb (2008, p. 223)
  92. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 26–28)
  93. Lamb (2008, pp. 223–224)
  94. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 28–31)
  95. Crews (1977, p. 156)
  96. Crews (1977, pp. 166–167)
  97. Crews (1977, pp. 157–160)
  98. Hacker (1991, pp. 80–81)
  99. Crews (1977, pp. 160–161)
  100. Hacker (1991, pp. 78–80)
  101. Crews (1977, pp. 161–175)
  102. Hacker (1991, pp. 83–93)
  103. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 15,70–71)
  104. Crews (1977, pp. 175–179)
  105. Hacker (1991, pp. 99–106)
  106. Crews (1977, p. 179)
  107. Hacker (1991, pp. 99–106)
  108. Crews (1977, pp. 179–181)
  109. Hacker (1991, pp. 97–98)
  110. Lamb (2008, p. 226)
  111. Crews (1977, pp. 181–183)
  112. Crews (1977, p. 183)
  113. Crews (1977, pp. 184–185)
  114. Strunk & White (1979, pp. 15–17)
  115. Crews (1977, pp. 185–192)
  116. Crews (1977, pp. 193–196)
  117. Strunk & White (1979, p. 67)
  118. Mack et al. (1985, pp. 1923–1924)
  119. Dickens (2000, p. 5)
  120. Eastman et al. (1977, p. 1)
  121. Bradbury (1971, p. 164)
  122. Eastman et al. (1977, p. 810)
  123. Baldick (2004)
  124. Browne & King (1993, pp. 175–177)
  125. Crews (1977, p. 148)
  126. Lamb (2008, pp. 198–206)
  127. Rozelle (2005, p. 3)
  128. Crews (1977, p. 148)
  129. Rozelle (2005, p. 3)
  130. Lamb (2008, p. 209)
  131. Gardner (1991, pp. 24,26,100,116)
  132. Lamb (2008, pp. 201–202)
  133. Gardner (1991, pp. 158–159)
  134. Pianka (1998, p. 94)
  135. Lamb (2008, p. 198)
  136. Pianka (1998, p. 94)


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