It’s All About the Style — Writing Well

Style or sub­stance, which one is more important?

While our last Friday post dealt with the process of writing—how to stim­u­late those word juices flow­ing in your head—this post looks at the style of those words. Now style is a very per­son­al thing, and it is entire­ly like­ly that your style will change based on what you are writ­ing. For exam­ple this chat­ty style that is suit­able for a blog post would be ter­ri­bly inap­pro­pri­ate in an aca­d­e­m­ic paper. However, there are still some aspects of style that have broad­er appli­ca­tions, and these should be examined.

Aspects of style have already popped up a cou­ple of times in the var­i­ous com­ments on this series, with some peo­ple lov­ing and oth­ers dis­lik­ing my style (no-one hates me yet). To some degree the style on this blog is part of my nat­ur­al writ­ing out­put, and the tech­ni­cal­i­ty that creeps in reflects some of my back­ground. Nevertheless, there are many foibles to my writ­ing style, and this sen­tence is but one florid exam­ple of this. Personally I have a ten­den­cy to over-use adjec­tives, and make my sen­tences over­ly com­plex, while also intro­duc­ing tech­ni­cal jar­gon in the mid­dle of a thought process. While a lot of this I have picked up from the read­ing I have done in my fields, they are still poor habits to be in. I am cer­tain­ly not be the best writer. In fact with many oth­ers I decry ‘I am no Hemingway,’ and I cer­tain­ly have a lot to learn. But here are my top five tips—really the top things I need to work on too—for think­ing about your style and writ­ing well.

1. Style is Personal

formal-writingThis one is rel­a­tive­ly obvi­ous, your style is your own. It is use­less slav­ish­ly copy­ing some­one else’s writ­ing, as it will appear forced and unnat­ur­al. Getting com­fort­able with your own writ­ing style is essen­tial. However, don’t use this as an excuse for slop­py writ­ing. While your style may have par­tic­u­lar nuances, and engage with cer­tain audi­ences effec­tive­ly, it should still be intel­li­gi­ble to a wider range. For exam­ple one of my bad habits is to cre­ate run-on sen­tences, join­ing ideas togeth­er in, what for me is, a log­i­cal man­ner. But these sen­tences actu­al­ly make my work hard­er to read, hard­er to digest, and hard­er to under­stand. Similarly my digres­sions into tech­ni­cal lan­guage rarely make my writ­ing more intel­li­gi­ble. Simply because cer­tain jar­gon is used in a spe­cif­ic field doesn’t mean it is ideal.

One of the ways you can shake up your style is to sim­ply write in a dif­fer­ent genre. While for an aca­d­e­m­ic paper it may be accept­able to use ’this author’ or ‘this paper’, to use such for­mal­i­ty on a blog makes it hard to read and you look exces­sive­ly for­mal. You need to find your writ­ing style, but don’t etch it in stone, it can always be improved.

2. Edit… a lot

In his very use­ful book On Writing Well, William Zinnser expounds the virtues of editing:

Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a sur­pris­ing num­ber that don’t serve any purpose.’


Clutter is the dis­ease of … writ­ing. We are a soci­ety stran­gling in unnec­es­sary words, cir­cu­lar con­struc­tions, pompous frills and mean­ing­less jargon.’

It is not unusu­al for writ­ing to require edit­ing, that is only nat­ur­al. In fact I haven’t met a sin­gle author who is able to write their pieces with­out any edit­ing work what­so­ev­er. Of course if we are so focused on putting the first draft down per­fect­ly, such that it needs no edit­ing, then we will rarely write any­thing. Write first, then edit. But def­i­nite­ly edit, and be ruth­less with your work.

3. Get to the Pointget-on-with-it

Similar to the old Monty Python sketch in The Holy Grail: ‘Get On With It!’ Often our writ­ing can take cir­cuitous routes that involve so many qual­i­fi­ca­tions and hedges that the read­er los­es sight of the point. There is a virtue in sim­ply get­ting to the point of a sen­tence. In my case those sen­tences of mine that involve lay­ered adverbs, and com­pound superla­tives can be sim­pli­fied. If you strip sen­tences back to their raw com­po­nents and then build from there your writ­ing will nor­mal­ly be bet­ter for it. As Zinsser poet­i­cal­ly comments:

Most writ­ers sow adjec­tives almost uncon­scious­ly into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pret­ty, and the sen­tences become longer and longer as they fill up with state­ly elms and frisky kit­tens and hard-bit­ten detec­tives and sleepy lagoons.’

4. Be Active

While the pas­sive voice has a place in the writ­ing sphere, it shouldn’t be used as the pri­ma­ry voice. Be active, use the active voice as much as you can. Not only is it sim­pler and more direct, but it also engages the read­er vig­or­ous­ly. But there is more than that, being active con­veys pas­sion and intent. It com­mu­ni­cates your thoughts with the same pas­sion that they are swirling around your head. Rarely do we write with­out any pas­sion for the top­ic at hand. Yet often the read­er receives a piece that is dis­pas­sion­ate and flat. Make your writ­ing active.

5. Get an external reader or editor

editing-humorAlthough the idea of get­ting some­one else to read through your work with a crit­i­cal eye may be ter­ri­fy­ing, it is one of the best ways to become a bet­ter writer. Ideally you want some­one who is dis­tant enough from your con­tent that they absorb the force of the argu­ment for the first time. Yet also some­one who is close enough to the con­tent to not be plunged in the deep end of your laboured work. In addi­tion try to pick some­one who you don’t inter­act with in that frame as often. That way they are not used to the foibles of your writ­ing style, and can high­light them for you. Once you have an edi­tor or read­er, take on their advice. It is of lit­tle use if all of the red ink is nev­er read or absorbed.


Bonus: Read widely.

The broad­er your read­ing base is the more you will see oth­er styles in action. Keeping across mul­ti­ple styles and fields helps with not being anchored in any spe­cif­ic style. In addi­tion read­ing books on writ­ing, such as William Zinsser’s On Writing Well will help iden­ti­fy your style issues.

That is my top five (plus one) tips for writ­ing well, or at least improv­ing styl­is­ti­cal­ly. Does it sound a bit hyp­o­crit­i­cal? Well real­ly I am also preach­ing to myself here, as I tend to fall short in each of these areas regularly.
What is it that you fall short in? What tips would you give in improv­ing style? Comment below. I look for­ward to read­ing them.

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