Style: An Introduction

“Style is a difference, a way of doing, a way of being done” – Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski had writing style. I remember realizing how different writing style can be when I was a junior in college. For fun, I was reading Bukowski because I felt he wrote raw, dirty, gritty prose—it felt real to me. At the same time I was taking a class on Sylvia Plath, and the two styles couldn’t be more different. Bukowski wrote poems in a conversational tone while Plath wrote poems that rhymed; Bukowski wrote about bars, drinking, gambling, and women while Plath wrote about bees, her father and mother, and about cutting her finger. The choice in words, content, and form were distinct for each writer, and these writers made me realize what style meant.

Style, admittedly, is much easier to see when you read but much harder to grasp when you have to develop your own. No one style is correct over another, and the style you employ depends on your teacher and the assignment. For instance, as a teacher, I advocate for a “conversational style” of writing that imitates speech and thought patterns, as long as it isn’t confused for “anything goes.” That is, while I recommend a conversational style as a starting point for my first-year composition classes, I stipulate that word choice, syntax, tone, and sentence length have to be manipulated to fit the requirements of the rhetorical situation. Think of the style of clothes you wear—you dress differently for different occasions and purposes, but you are still the same person. When you go to a wedding, you will wear a suit and tie, but you are still you, eating, smiling and making jokes. When you go to a funeral, you will be nicely dressed, but you will switch your attitude to fit the rhetorical situation. You talk to different people in different ways. No matter what clothes you wear, what tone you take on in speech, or what situation you find yourself in, you are still you, but you will accommodate your outer appearance and speech and conversation topics to fit in properly.

Conversational style does not mean that you write “literally, exactly how you would, uh, like—talk” with redundancies, interjections, and solecisms. Style, like everything else in writing, takes practice and patience. Style is about attention to details. Writing with style means you are aware of your writing space; in other words, you are aware of your purpose (the reason you are writing: is it to persuade, inform, argue, explain?), and you are aware of your audience (what do they know already? What are your audience’s beliefs and values? Do they agree with what you are about to say or not? What tone and word choice will best connect to the audience?) Just like clothes let you convey your style to the people around you, your writing should convey who you are. You must manipulate the manner in which you ornament your writing, which reflects the way your writing manifests its style.