This section has articles on
- what makes a good writing style,
- reading up on style, and
- the importance of having an appropriate structure
Ask most people for a definition of style and they will come up with words such as 'flowing and readable' ... 'witty and elegant' ... 'amusing and sharp' ... 'enjoyable and satisfying'.
Which is fine, up to a point. We can hardly disagree with such words, but they don't really help us when, for instance, we want to know whether to choose one word over another.
This brings us to guidelines and rules. Over the past 100 years many excellent writers on writing have given us many pieces of sensible advice, such as:
- use short sentences,
- prefer the active to the passive,
- use positives rather than negatives,
- use familiar words and avoid clichés,
- write with nouns and verbs.
A 'good style' for this market will have little in common with the 'good style' as seen by Orwell or Strunk and White.
This leads us to the only plausible resolution: a good writing style becomes the choice of words and grammatical constructions that are most likely to get the message across to the target audience.
Style becomes a means to an end and not a measure of personality or education. Its importance lies in what it allows us to say to other people rather than what it says about us. Once we stop trying to impress, and concentrate on putting across what we want to say, we might end up with something with literary merit after all.
What others say:
- 'People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the secret of style.' Matthew Arnold in Collections and Recollections, chapter 13.
- 'Style is the dress of thought; a modest dress, neat, but not gaudy, will true critics please.' Samuel Wesley, An epistle to a friend concerning Poetry, 1700.
- 'Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style.' Jonathan Swift, Letter to a young gentleman lately entered into holy orders, 1720.
- 'I notice that you use plain simple language, short words and brief sentences. This is the way to write English... When you catch adjectives kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable.' Mark Twain, writing to a schoolboy essayist.
Reading up on style
Analyse the techniques you admire, says Wynford Hicks
To develop your writing style you need good models. You can find them in newspapers, specialist periodicals and books, both fiction and non-fiction. Look for writers whose tone and turn of phrase produce the effect you're looking for.
Broadsheet papers like the Guardian are uneven in the quality of their writing. Some of their journalists produce copy that is informative and entertaining, but others are better at researching stories than writing them. The Guardian often publishes clumsy, convoluted news stories with intros that go on forever.
Middle-market tabloids tend to be more consistent. Have a regular look at the Daily Mail: you will rarely see grammatical errors, convoluted sentences and sheer obscurity in its pages. This is partly because it takes sub-editing more seriously than the broadsheets.
Spend time analysing the articles you think are well written. In a news report how does the intro - the first paragraph -grab the reader's attention and tell the story in a few words? In a profile how do the quotes selected convey the personality of the person interviewed? In a feature on a specialist subject how does the writer convey technical details to the reader in a digestible form?
In looking for models, don't restrict yourself to the kind of writing that you do - or want to do - yourself. Include history, biography, novels in your reading list. And apply the same procedures to books as to articles: analyse the technique you admire.
Here, for example, is a paragraph from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, master story-teller and Nobel prize winner, whose style is famous for its apparent simplicity: 'The old man had seen many great fish. He had seen many that weighed more than a thousand pounds and he had caught two of that size in his life, but never alone. Now alone, and out of sight of land, he was fast to the biggest fish that he had even seen and bigger than he had ever heard of, and his left hand was still as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle.'
Note that word 'apparent' applied to 'simplicity': here is the use of deliberate repetition (for example, 'had seen many' repeated early on), the characteristic use of 'and' (three times in the last sentence), the gradual increase in sentence length, all contributing to a rich and powerful rhythm. The paragraph ends with the simile of the eagle's claws - which stands out from the 'plainness' of the rest.
Adapted from Writing for Journalists by Wynford Hicks with Sally Adams and Harriett Gilbert, Routledge, 1999.
Five recommended books
- Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell - at his laconic best reporting on the Spanish Civil War.
- The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers - a novel in powerful and poetic prose by one of the greats of the 20th century.
- Brighton Rock by Graham Green - in his own words 'one of the best I ever wrote'.
- Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe - the 'new' journalist who savaged the modern novel for lack of ambition, then proved he could do better.
- Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks - written years after the First World War but perhaps the most effective factional account of war in English.
The importance of structure
One of the most common requests from people coming on our courses was to learn how to write for different groups of people. Most assumed it is mainly a question of style. In fact the structure is even more important.
Those trained as scientists tend to structure their writing according to IMRAD: introduction - method - results - discussion. The writer starts with some gentle background, describes the action taken, submits the evidence, then finally comes up with something interesting. This is fine for scientific articles and for other documents aimed at scientists. Target readers will expect it. They will also have worked out strategies to cope with it, such as reading from the bottom up.
But, as a way of organising information, it demands a lot from the reader. For all other audiences, therefore, consider the 'inverted triangle' model used so successfully by professional communicators.
This model is based on the assumption that most readers will only read the second sentence if they have read the first one. Start with the big guns, and leave the less interesting stuff until the end. While preparing to write, identify the key message you want to put across, and then put it across in your opening sentence in as interesting a way as possible.
When reporting a scientific paper (as opposed to writing one), avoid the 'introductory' approach: 'In 1996 the trust surveyed 7,000 members of support groups for people with genetic disorders in Britain to find out about their experiences with insurers and other service providers'. Go straight for the bottom line: 'A new survey has shown that insurers discriminate unfairly on the basis of genetic information'. In a memo, instead of: '
Over the past few years the management team has spent considerable time discussing remuneration', write: 'The management team has decided to give everyone a pay rise'. When people say that they can't write for different audiences they are really saying that different audiences seem to turn off. Using a more interesting structure will be a great help in catching - then keeping - their attention.
Checklist: when writing for different audiences, ask:
- Am I clear in my own mind who the real audience is?
- Am I trying please only one audience?
- Am I using an appropriate atructure?
- Am I writing to an appropriate length?
- Am I using the language I would use face-to-face?