Learn how to establish a writing style that is appropriate for a particular rhetorical situation. Become conversant with The Elements of Style. Explore academic and workplace writing genres. Master the conventions of a professional writing prose style. Understand the effects of brevity; flow, coherence, unity; and simplicity on clarity.  Review grammar, mechanics, and common sentence-level errors.    
Style as Semiotics: a child sports stylish sunglasses / Moxley photo of street art Style as Semiotics: a child sports stylish sunglasses / Moxley photo of street art

What is Style?

Style is

  • the shape of content (Shahn 1992)
    • For some compositionists and artists, style and content are so interwoven that they cannot be considered separately.
  • the linguistic and semantic attributes of a text that are associated with a particular writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . or discourse community/community of practice.
  • a signifier , a semiotic system.
    • People read styles just as they read books or webpages.
      • People interpret your clothes, for instance. They draw inferences about your personality, feelings, social status, and community memberships. Likewise, people make interpretations, inferences, based on your diction, metaphor, and style of writing. If your language invokes a writer-based style, for instance, they may assume you are either uneducated or self-absorbed.

Related Concepts: Persona; Register; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetoric; Rhetorical Reasoning; Text; Tone; Voice.

Why Does Style Matter in Human Communications?

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.

Style is more than writing grammatically correct sentences; it’s about crafting texts that snag the reader’s attention and refuse to let go, sentences that insist on being savored, sentences that make the writing a pleasure to enjoy.Inexperienced writers might believe that adopting an appropriate academic style or a professional/technical writing style is something beyond their skills, something reserved for professionals who have honed their craft over the years or those blessed with inherent talents. This is not true. While creating sentences that make readers weep may be reserved for poets and novelists, average writers can create sentences that do more than simply convey information.

Style matters. A lot. A writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s . . . style impacts whether readers will scan much less read and comprehend a text.

For instance, if you submit texts to audiences that ignore ongoing scholarly conversations, if you fail to organize your thoughts around a thesis, research question, hypothesis, then your audience may dismiss your work as self-centered or writer-based. If you use language willy nilly, without concern for the connotation of words, then your audience respond may emotionally in ways you never imagined.

Discourse communities/communities of practice have stylistic conventions. Becoming credentialed in a discipline (e.g., physics, engineering, history) is tied to mastering disciplinary styles, such as how to research topics, how to weave sources into texts, and how to cite sources.

At the personal level, writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . aspire to their own unique styles. In interviews of writers @ work, writers often speak about finding their voice and style. By this they can mean many things, such as finding a cadence or rhythm in their dialog, developing a compelling voice and tone, or introducing metaphors in clever new ways.

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.

A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge…  Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind….”

Strunk & White (1918). The elements of style.

Style from a Global Perspective & Local Perspective

When discussing your style or the style of someone else, you may find it helpful to distinguish stylistic moves at the global vs. the local level. Style is a composite of multiple language practices that are forged at both

  1. the Global, Macroscopic, Rhetorical Level
  2. the Local, Microscopic, Linguistic/Sentence Level.
Global Perspective Local Perspective
A rhetor’s style is shaped by the absence and presence of specific rhetorical appeals, rhetorical devices, and 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 they maintain control of the purpose, thesis, research question and maintains a coherent, logical flow.
A rhetor invokes a professional style by using concrete & sensory language,
figurative language and concise language.

A rhetor invokes a sense of competence and commitment by avoiding errors of diction, grammar, mechanics, punctuation, sentences.

Style & Subjectivity

Style is a subjective experience.

How an audience interprets style is a subjective process: readers of books, movie goers, art critics may disagree with one another about how to define a text’s style. And the judgment of critics may vary over time.

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. For example, they may endeavor to employ the critical literacy practices of a judge, arbitrator, or mediator in a litigation dispute).Yet the audience may find writer’s stance to be overly emotional, or vague/underdeveloped.

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 to 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.

The Canterbury Tales in Middle English with translation, lines 1 to 18

Styles change over time.

Some stylistic changes are directly attributable to new technologies, such as Twitter or Instagram.

  • shaped by the medium, media of the text and by the evolution of communication technologies
  • shaped by the rhetor’s rhetorical situation, especially the discourse communities the rhetor is addressing.
    • Style is a rhetorical construct. How styles are defined, valued, and used by discourse communities is largely determined by community conventions, which are disseminated in the textual productions of community members, including style guidelines, peer-reviewed publications, magazines and books, blogs, etc.
  • shaped by the writer’s literacy history
    • 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–and so on. Later, in school, as we read more about cultures, as we meet and interact with people who have different life experiences, different ideas about what exists, and what is possible. So long as we are open, we are exposed to new ways of expressing ourselves. Over time, we pick and choose from our experiences. Most of this happens outside of our consciousness. It is a form of Tacit Knowledge.

Style is a marker of identity and community. Rejection or adoption of a style impinges on how the audience responds to a text. Much of schooling involves mastering the discourse conventions, the genres, of particular communities of practice.

Style & Convention

For writers, speaker, knowledge workers . . . style is a dance between following rules and breaking rules. For instance, writers such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Toni Morrison, and TS Eliot are well known for stream of consciousness writing, which overlooks standard written English to set a unique tone and voice.

She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Style and design are interrelated concepts in the sense that how you work with design elements, design principles, and design tools to innovate, solve problems, and communicate impinges on the style of your written discourse. The main distinction between Style and design is that Style addresses the aesthetics of alphabetical language whereas design addresses the aesthetics of visual language. When working on Style, it’s important to keep an eye on Design.
  • Style, voice, tone, and persona are all interrelated concepts. When revising and editing, it’s always wise to consider the appropriateness of these rhetorical elements in relation to your context.

Recommended Readings

Apple Style Guide
Published by Apple, this is a useful example of a company-based style guide.

A Plain English Handbook
Published by the Office of Investor Education and Assistance at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commision, this is a useful review of copyediting guidelines.

Professional Writing Prose Style
Learn the stylistic expectations of

The Elements of Style
Published by Strunk and White in 1918, The Elements of Style remains a foundational text for aspiring writers interested in style, especially punctuation and mechanics.

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 It'”. Wall 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.