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A Guide to Writing Style

Author/Creation:  Katherine Leer/ January 2014
Summary: Provides an overview of writing style depending on audience. Writing has two basic styles:  formal and informal. The level of a document’s formality changes depending on the document’s audience.  Covered in this handout are some of the factors that determine a document’s level of formality.
Objective: To teach students what style of writing should be used for academic purposes, and what style of writing should be used for personal purposes.


What is Style?
Style differs from person to person. When it comes to clothing, one person’s style may involve dressing in dark clothing while another person dresses in bright colors and wears a lot of jewelry. Style, when it comes to writing, is quite similar. Each writer has his or her own style. One writer may enjoy using a lot of literary devices (such as symbolism, metaphors, and similes) while another writer may enjoy being very straight and to the point without a lot of detail. However, all writers must change or alter their style depending on the situation for which they are writing. In this handout, what will be discussed are the elements of style that should be used for two common writing situations:  personal writing and academic writing.


Style and Personal Writing
Freedom is at hand when it comes to personal writing. When writing for personal reasons, there is no true right or wrong way to write. When writing creatively, all that a writer really needs to be sure of is that his or her writing reaches a goal, fulfills a purpose, is appropriate for the chosen audience, and simply makes sense. However, most creative writers also wish to keep their audience entertained. This means that a creative writer may choose to use literary devices.  The following are some common literary devices that creative writers use to keep audience members interested:

  • Similes:  Comparing something to something else, usually with the use of “like” or “as” (Ex: After being in the sun all day, Harry’s face was as red as a strawberry.)
  • Metaphors: Naming or calling one thing something else (Ex: Melinda was so angry that she became a volcano, ready to erupt at any moment.)
  • Repetition:  Repeating a word or group of words for effect (Ex: Slowly, I walked to the door.  Slowly, I made my way to the car.  Slowly, I drove away from that eerie place.)
  • Symbolism: Using an object or aspect of a character to represent an important theme in a story (Ex: Flannery O’ Connor often uses peacocks as a symbol of God’s saving grace.)
  • Allusion: Mentioning or referring to another literary work within a work (Ex:  In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creature refers to the Bible when he says that he is Victor Frankenstein’s Adam.)

These are just a few of the literary devices that creative writers use in their compositions. One of the most used literary devices, not found on this list, is imagery. As a basic guideline, creative writers are urged to “show” instead of “tell.” This means that creative writers strive to give readers the feeling that they are there in the world of the written piece

Imagery involves the description of a situation in terms of visuals, scents, and physical sensations. The use of imagery often takes up much of the space of a story.

Ex:  Mary waited outside the kitchen as her mother prepared dinner.




Mary took in the intoxicating aroma of garlic and other spices as she sat on the sofa in the nearby living room. The scent of her mother’s cooking always filled Mary with such warmth, only to be surpassed by the warmth she felt as each morsel later met her tongue and passed into her belly. She could taste it now, even though she was not even looking at it.  She was taking in that great spoonful of homemade stew.  She could taste the tenderness of the meat, and the wonderful nuttiness of the carrots—the soft, buttery potatoes. Her stomach wailed in agony, knowing it would have to wait for the oncoming moments before Mother would say, “Dinner is served.”

The first sentence offered here as an example simply “tells” the reader what is happening. The paragraph that follows it is more detailed and is, arguably, more effective. That full paragraph “shows” the reader what is going on.

Besides creative writing, a person may also write a personal letter. When writing a letter, a writer might not choose to use quite as many literary devices.  If the letter is being sent to a friend or family member, the writer may choose to use slang-terms. However, writers should avoid using technical jargon that will confuse readers. Jargon should only be used when the writer is positive that their reader knows what it means.


Style and Academic Writing
You probably speak differently when speaking to your professor or employer than when you speak to your friends or family members. Thus, it should make sense that you alter your writing style when writing for class or for work. When writing for academic purposes, you should always make sure to follow your professor’s guidelines.  Each professor will have different rules when it comes to writing style. However, there are some basic guidelines that are ordinarily followed when writing for college. These guidelines should be followed unless your professor says that it is acceptable not to.


1.   Contractions
Contractions are sort of like abbreviations for two subsequent words. Contractions are words that include a word, an apostrophe, and part of another word (Ex: do+’+not=don’t). Some professors allow the use of contractions. Most do not. Some, however, allow contractions to be used in homework, but not in research papers.  Until you know whether or not your professor deems contractions acceptable, you should avoid using them altogether. Although it may seem difficult to avoid contractions, doing so may be helpful. Using contractions decreases word count. Therefore, not using contractions can help you to meet the minimum requirements of a paper’s word count.

2.   Slang and Profanity
Slang is normally not appropriate for use in academic writing. Slang includes words, made up or real, that serve as proxies for proper English words (Ex:  fuzz=police). Avoid using slang when writing for academic purposes. Also remember to write in a manner that is grammatically correct; do not write like you speak.  Also try to avoid profanity. Most professors do not allow the use of profanity and will take off points or enforce other disciplinary action when it is used. The only time profanity should be used is when quoting another source that includes profanity in its text.  Even then, you may wish to ask your professor about the use of profanity in your writing. They may wish for you to replace some of the swear term’s letters with asterisks (*).

3.   Sentence Fragments and Run-Ons
Sometimes creative writers break the rules of grammar and mechanics. Many creative writers use sentence fragments and run-ons for effect. However, when writing for academic purposes, you should always follow the rules of grammar and mechanics. In order for a sentence to be complete, the sentence must include a subject and a corresponding verb. If a sentence is composed of several complete clauses, it is most-likely a run-on. Make sure to separate sentences by using periods or question marks.  It is not acceptable to separate sentences with commas.

4.   Format
When writing for personal reasons, there is no true, set order to what should be placed first, second, third, and so on.  However, when writing for academic purposes, your writing will be more effective if you order things logically. Here, I will discuss the order of items placed in a typical five-paragraph research paper.  For longer or shorter assignments, things may need to be altered. When writing a five-paragraph paper, there should be an introductory paragraph.  Towards the end of this paragraph, there needs to be a thesis statement. The thesis statement is very important because it prepares the reader for the content of the rest of the paper.  The thesis statement usually includes the purpose and main argument of the paper. It is also used to provide an effective transition into the body of the paper. The following body paragraphs can be placed in any order. However, it is most effective to place the paragraphs that cover the most important points in the paper first and third. The least important point should be placed in the middle.  The reason for this is to make sure the reader remembers the most important points of the paper. Readers are more likely to remember what they read first or last than they are to remember what they read in the middle of the paper.  Regardless of the order of paragraphs, logical bridges should also be made with the use of effective transitions in order to maintain unity.  To further help readers recall all that they have read, the closing paragraph should briefly sum up all the points that have been discussed in the paper.

5.   Literary Devices
When writing for academic purposes, it is best to limit the number of literary devices used in the paper.  It is most effective to be straightforward and clear when writing an academic paper. This will make it much easier for your readers to understand your purpose for writing (usually persuasive or informative) and your argument. It is best to save “flowery”, “fluffy” writing for creative or other personal situations and remain more “cut-and- dry” when writing for academic purposes. The opening of the paper should be colorful enough to grab the reader’s attention, but literary devices do not need to be used in order to keep the reader’s attention. In order to keep the reader’s attention, other actions can be taken. Try varying sentence length or opening the paper with a fact, quote, or question.


Other Factors that Contribute to Style
In this handout, many of the basics of writing style have been discussed. However, writing style will alter depending on other audience factors. The age, level of education, and occupation of the audience are just a few of the factors that may affect a writer’s style. For example, when dealing with elementary school students, a writer should only use elementary-level vocabulary.  There are many other factors that should affect a writer’s style.  It is not very difficult, however, to alter style.  A writer only needs to use common sense when deciding how to write for whatever audience he or she is writing.