You’ve probably heard writers (or teachers, or critics) talk about “style” in writing. What exactly is style, though?
It can be tough to pin down, because there are a variety of things we might be looking at when we talk about style. In most cases, though, style is about the individual word choices and the structure of sentences. While an author might have particular character-types that s/he tends to use, or a penchant for complicated plots, those things are usually considered on a different level from style.
Two Examples of Style
You can see style at work in even a short excerpt from a piece of writing. For instance, compare these two passages, which come from two websites’ “About” pages:
We started innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No” in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking.
(From “us”, Innocent.)
Established in 1981, Infosys is a NYSE listed global consulting and IT services company with more than 209,000 employees. From a capital of US$250, we have grown to become a US$11.12 billion (LTM Q1 FY19 revenues) company with a market capitalization of approximately US$ 42.4 billion.
(From “About Us”, Infosys.)
Both of these excerpts tell us about the respective companies’ beginnings. But they not only focus on different things (and as we’ll see in a minute, you can’t completely divorce content from style), they’re written in very different language.
Formal vs Informal Style
Even if we look at the first four words of each piece, we can see the difference in style:
“We started innocent in…”
“Established in 1981, Infosys…”
We can tell that one of these passages will use a much more formal style than the other:
“Started” is a simpler word than “established”; “innocent” doesn’t capitalise their name (a hallmark of very informal style); the innocent piece is in the first person (“we”) whereas the Infosys piece is in the third person (“Infosys”).
Throughout the excerpts, the content is also quite different: innocent give us a story about how their company began, whereas Infosys focus on facts and figures.
Tip: If you need to make your writing more informal, use shorter sentences, simpler words, and write as if you’re talking directly to the reader. To make your writing more formal, use more precise, complex words, as if you’re writing a company report.
Formal vs informal is one way of looking at style – but there are plenty of other ways in which you might describe the style of a piece of writing.
Concise vs Detailed
Some writing is to-the-point: it gives information succinctly, and moves on. Other pieces are much more verbose – they tell a story, paint a scene, take their time.
Neither style is “better” – they serve different purposes. A news report about a local incident – say, a lost child who was found unharmed – would be much shorter than a novel that deals with similar subject matter. Or compare a tweet on a particular topic with a blog post on the same topic: the tweet is much shorter than the blog post, but both might well be valuable in different ways.
Tip: To be more concise, cut out extra details and unnecessary words. To expand a short piece, look for ways to give (relevant or interesting) detail, or offer a more nuanced perspective by looking at different angles on the topic.
Commercial vs Literary
In fiction, one major stylistic divide is between “literary” novels and “commercial” novels. As with formal vs informal, we could see this as a spectrum – with the most literary novels at one end, and the most commercial at the other end.
Literary fiction places much more importance on writing style than commercial fiction, where the point of “style” is usually to get the story across as smoothly as possible. The content can also be quite different: literary fiction tends to be less plot-driven and more focused on character, for instance. Commercial fiction tends to sell much better, though some literary authors like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan sell a lot of books, too.
Tip: As Harvey Chapman from Novel Writing Help puts it, “Literary novels generally sell in smaller quantities than genre or mainstream novels. This means publishers are less likely to take a gamble on them, but you shouldn’t let that put you off writing them. Always write the type of book that you want to write.”
Factual vs Opinionated
Another way to look at style is to think about the type of statements being made. Are they facts, or opinions? (Generally, a writer focused on facts will be more dispassionate and one focused on opinions will be more impassioned in their language – though there are exceptions.)
News articles, for instance, tend to focus on facts – they may well be biased, of course, and the underlying political or social leanings of a publication can show through in the facts they choose to include or omit.
Columnists in newspapers, however, are free to be much more opinionated – even, in some cases, potentially offensive. They can share their thoughts and ideas with little or no recourse to actual facts.
Tip: As a writer and a reader, it’s important to be able to distinguish between facts and opinions. Facts are objective and can be proved (e.g. “water is denser than air”); opinions are subjective and two people might have two opposing opinions (e.g. “swimming is horrible” vs “swimming is wonderful”). If you’re trying to convince your reader of something – perhaps through a blog post or an article – then it’s fine to give strong opinions, but you should also aim to back up what you’re saying with specific facts.
As a writer, you already have a natural writing style – though you may decide you want to develop or modify it. You might want to think about:
- How formal or informal do you want your writing to be? This might vary in different contexts – for instance, if you’re a freelancer, you might write for some publications that want a very chatty, laid-back style, and others that want a business-like style.
- Do you tend to be a concise or verbose writer? Perhaps you find that you naturally get your points across quickly and briefly – or maybe you like to dig deep into a topic and give lots of details. This could affect the type of writing you want to do (e.g. short stories vs novels, or blog posts vs books).
- If you write fiction, are you aiming at the commercial or literary end of the market? Don’t feel that you “should” do one or the other – focus on what appeals to you as a writer. If you’re unsure, you might want to try writing short stories in a variety of styles.
- Are there particular hallmarks of your style that you’ve already noted? For instance, perhaps you tend to use quite colourful language, or you love complex sentence structures. You might also want to look closely at the style of authors you enjoy: how exactly do they use words, phrases and sentences to create particular effects?
Your writing style might take years to develop and a lifetime to perfect, though – so don’t put off writing until you’ve “found” your style. Keep working on different pieces and projects: in a year’s time, you might be able to look back and see that your style was developing all along.