Strategically engage in the language practices of effective communicators:substantive prose, concision, clarity, flow, and unity. Distinguish between topic-focused, audience-focused, and rhetor-focused styles. Understand diction, grammar, and mechanics. Replace vague language with concrete, sensory, figurative language.

Style is how a text is composed as opposed to what the text means. In other words, style is the shape of content (Shahn 1992).

Related Concepts: Style and Voice are interwoven concepts.

All communicative acts are imbued with style. Even the bot that answers the phone when you call in to question your Verizon Communications bill has a style–i.e., the voice of a calm, helpful person eager to help.

A rhetor’s style is

  • shaped by the medium, media of the text.
    • For instance, you are likely to use different ways of expressing yourself when on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook).
  • shaped by the rhetor’s identity, tacit knowledge,
    • Style is your unique way of expressing yourself. As an individual, over time, you develop a style that is uniquely yours. People learn to speak at certain tones and certain cadences from their childhood experiences, parents and siblings. Later, in school, as we read more about cultures, other people and their experiences, so long as we are open, we are exposed to new ways of expressing themselves. Over time, we pick and choose from our experiences and tacitly develop habitual patterns of expression that are unique to us.
  • shaped by the rhetor’s rhetorical situation, especially the discourse communities the rhetor is addressing.
    • Style is a semiotic system. People read styles just as they read books or webpages: Styles are a way of ascribing loyalty to a community and set of conventions and values. For instance, the way you dress as an individual reflects your community memberships and the values, epistemologies, embedded in those communities.

Style matters. A lot. Style is an important component of the rhetorical situation. A writer’s style may enhance or impede the rhetor’s purpose. For instance, when a writer employs pompous language, sexist language, or turgid, abstract, polysyllabic prose, readers may look away and read something else. Even if the message of the text is important to them, they may ignore it if they dislike how the writer has composed a text.

During deliberations on a legal matter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once remarked “I know it when I see it” to indicate what does and doesn’t constitute obscenity (Lattman 2007). When discussing your own prose style, your own unique way of communicating, your unique voice, you’ll know it when you see it.

Elements of Style

Interpretation of a writer’s style will always be shaped by subjectivity: readers of books, movie goers, art critics may disagree with one another about how to define a text’s style.

Discourse Communities, Communities of Practice tend to develop genres and styles of expressing content. For instance, the objective style of the scientist in a research study differs from the personal voice of the poet in a poem. The citaton for style for a humanist (MLA, Modern Language Association) differs from the citation practices of engineers (IEEE)–and so on. See Citation.

Thus, style is a social, rhetorical construct. How styles are defined, valued, and used in discourse communities is largely determined by community conventions, which are proscribed in style guidelines, peer-reviewed publications, magazines and books, blogs, etc.

Some conventions are global: they define the practices of Symbol Analysts across rhetorical, cultural, and historical contexts. For example, Standard Written English has a catechism that includes

  1. a grammar–a set of rules, common practices–that guide how words are shaped into phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. This catechism is codified in handbooks such as Writing Commons’ discussion of grammar. Additionally, Standard Written English has conventions that govern Standard Written
  2. a set of rules and conventions called Mechanics that govern written discourse, especially Capitalization, Punctuation, and Spelling.

Beyond adherence or lack of adherence to the grammatical and mechanical conventions, there are some stylistic practices that are more global, more general than others. In other words, some styles are so important that they are used repeatedly across rhetorical situations, genres, cultures, discourse communities. For instance,

Perhaps the most cited Elements of Style are

  1. Brevity
  2. Clarity, Simplicity
  3. Diction
  4. Flow, Coherence, Unity

Additionally, Grammar and Mechanics may play a substantive role in defining a rhetor’s style. A writer whose work is difficult for readers to decipher may be called a writer-based style. Prose written with the needs, interests, and opinions of an audience in mind may be said to have a reader-based style.

Types of Writing Styles

Perhaps the most clever categorization of writing styles was proposed by Walker Gipson (1966), who theorized three major categories of writing styles:

  1. The Tough Talker
  2. The Sweet Talker
  3. The Stuffy Talker

“The Tough Talker, in these terms, is a man dramatized as centrally concerned with himself — his style is I-talk. The Sweet Talker goes out of his way to be nice to us — his style is you-talk. The Stuffy Talker expresses no concern either for himself or his reader — his style is it-talk. These are three extreme possibilities: the way we write at any given moment can be seen as an adjustment or compromise among these three styles of identifying ourselves and defining our relation with others” (Gibson, 1966, p.x).

In Writing Studies, Linda Flower (1979) proposed a categorization schema for discussing student writing that is wildly popular in the U.S:

  1. Writer-Based Prose Style
  2. Reader-Based Prose Style

For Fowler, A Reader-Based Prose Style] “creates a shared language and shared context between writer and reader” whereas a Writer-Based Prose Style uses abbreviated, self-centered, informal, vague language—i.e., language that is personally meaningful to the writer but not the reader.

The advantage to Gipson’s and Flower’s categorization schemes are that they are general enough to work across discourse communities.

More nuanced types of writing styles can be developed by analyzing the textual practices of writers working in different genres and different discourse communities, including:

  1. Academic Prose Style
  2. Technical Writing Prose Style*

Style & Subjectivity

People do not always agree about how to define a rhetors’ style or whether a particularly rhetor’s style is appropriate for a given rhetorical context. For example, sometimes writers assume their voice, tone, and persona is appropriate for a rhetorical context, yet–because of the passage of time, cultural differences, personality differences, and so on–readers may find the voice, tone, and persona to be offensive or inappropriate.

Writers may believe they have written a text as concisely as possible. Yet the audience may perceive their text to be verbose.
Writers may believe they have accomplished their intended rhetorical stance (e.g., that of an impartial judge).Yet the audience may find writer’s stance to be overly emotional,

Style & Historical Processes

Styles evolve in response to cultural, technological, and historical changes. In the early days, before the Internet, typewriters, back when you had a find a good piece of bark to scribble your thoughts on, style was different from what it is now. The long sentences and page-long paragraphs of the 19th century have given way to short sentences & paragraphs, embedded hyperlinks and videos, and an increasing reliance on visual language.

Style & Writing Development

In the discourse communities of Creative Writing, Poetry, Literature, Film, and Writing Studies, it is common for practitioners to argue that an important part of the rhetor’s (e.g., the writer, the artist, the film maker) development concerns finding their unique style. This is especially true in genres that prize creativity and literary language.

Style is a composite of multiple language practices that are forged at both

  1. the Global, Macroscopic, Rhetorical Level
  2. the Local, Microscopic, Linguistic level.
Global Perspective Local Perspective
A rhetor’s style is shaped by the absence and presence of specific Rhetorical Appeals, and Rhetorical Devices, Rhetorical Modes. The balance of logos to ethos and pathos impinges on style.

The Rhetorical Stance a rhetor adopts via Persona, Tone, and Voice largely defines how audiences talk about the rhetor’s style.

When Rhetors engage in the processes of scholarship (e.g., they develop substantive discourse that substantiates knowledge claims according to information literacy conventions) they project a learned, professional style.

When Rhetors employ genre conventions, their prose identifies them as members of a discourse community.

A rhetor seems smart and focused when she maintains control of the purpose, thesis, research question and maintains a coherent, logical flow.

A Rhetor invokes a professional style by using of concrete & sensory language, figurative language, concise language.

Rhetor invoke a sense of competence and commitment by avoiding errors of Diction, Grammar, Mechanics, Punctuation, Sentences.

Strategies for Reflecting on Your Prose Style

Given the range of styles available to you in any given rhetorical situation, how do you best decide what’s an appropriate style? How does the occasion for writing impinge on which stylistic moves you should employ?

Well, to begin your should analyze your rhetorical situation.

Thus, to assess what sort of style is most appropriate for any given rhetorical situation, you need to consider your audience and the discourse community you are addressing. Here, you’ll want note the practices of experts writers in the field, especially authors of peer reviewed works, texts are considered canonical in their field, and especially popular or creative works.

When you enter a communicative situation, consider what sort of style is appropriate for your audience(s). Consider, e.g.,

  • What jargon and level of abstraction is acceptable?
  • How about humor or satire? Should you hammer down a thesis in the first sentence or lead the reader down a path to a conclusion?
  • Do you need to be more objective than persuasive?
  • What about visual language, visual rhetoric?

In turn, when reading or listening to a rhetor, reflect on your perception of the rhetor’s style. Using Gipson’s categorization scheme, what sort of voice do you hear?

  • Does the writer seem self absorbed? Does the world revolve around the writer’s emotions and thoughts?
  • Does the writer sound sweet, like a salesperson who uses the you attitude to place the spotlight on your needs and concerns?
  • Does the writer seem stuffy? Is the focus solely on the topic without references to his/her or your experiences with the topic?


Learn how to negotiate between formal academic writing and conversational prose by maintaining an academic tone while staying true to your own voice in Making Sure Your Voice is Present.

Sentence Structure

Reusing the same sentence pattern in your writing makes for monotonous reading. Learn to engage your readers by experimenting with different sentence patterns in Select an Appropriate Sentence Pattern. Then focus on individual sentences with the Sentence-Level Exercise.

Active Voice

Whereas writers in the sciences tend to use passive voice in research reports, writers in other fields such as the humanities emphasize the importance of active voice. Learn to revise sentences to make them active and more engaging in Use the Active Voice. Another key to crafting engaging prose is to maintain a high verb-to-noun ratio.

Point of View

Different genres call for different points of view. Most students assume that academic papers should be written in the third person, but the first person has become increasingly accepted in more formal genres. Learn when the first person is an appropriate choice and how to successfully use first-person pronouns in Use the First Person, The First Person, and Using the First Person in Academic Writing: When is It Okay? To better understand why second-person pronouns should not be used in academic writing, read Understanding Second Person Point of View: Wizard Activity.


When detailing their own ideas or the ideas of other scholars, successful writers communicate information in a clear and concrete manner. Learn how to craft concrete sentences in Avoid Vagueness and how to write clear, concise sentences in Write with Clarity. When appropriate, writers include figurative language in their texts. Learn why they do this and how to successfully employ figurative language in Incorporate Figurative Language into Your Paper.


Being able to identify and address grammatical mistakes is important because those errors can not only make your draft appear sloppy, but they can also change the meaning of your sentences and confuse your reader. Enhance your understanding of grammatical principles by reading Subject-Verb Agreement, Subject-Pronoun Agreement, and Avoid Vague Pronoun References.


Learn how to use proper punctuation.

Below is a summary of how to punctuate different sentence patterns and how to analyze the likely effect of different syntactical forms on readers’ comprehension.

  • Commas: Understand conventions for using commas and appreciate the likely effects of particular sentence lengths and patterns on reading comprehension.
  • Dashes: Create emphasis and define terms by interrupting the flow of a sentence using a dash; know when the dash must be used as opposed to the comma.
  • Colons: Use the colon when the first sentence anticipates the second sentence or phrase, thereby creating an emphatic tone.
  • Semicolons: Use a semicolon to join two sentences or to punctuate a series or list of appositives that already include commas.

Works Cited

Gipson, Walker (1966).  Tough, Sweet and Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose. Midland Books.

Lattman, Peter (September 27, 2007). “The Origins of Justice Stewart’s ‘I Know It When I See ItWall Street Journal. Law Blog at The Wall Street Journal Online. Retrieved December 31, 2014.

Shahn, Ben (1992). The Shape of Content. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,