Style

What is style? What role does style plan in communication? How can I develop a style appropriate for a particular situation?   Learn how to compose texts that snag the reader's attention. Use the appropriate style when composing texts, apps, products, and services. do I determine the most appropriate style to adopt when composing texts and designing apps, products, and services? How can principles of Flow, Coherence, Unity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Simplicity help me write with greater clarity? Learn to adopt different styles for different audiences and discourse communities. Brevity - Clarity = Code Switching   here's what's in this section

What is Style?

Style is

  • how a text is composed, how it is designed, as opposed to what the text means.
    • In other words, style is the shape of content (Shahn 1992)
  • a signal, a linguistic attribute, a stylistic attribute of a text that is associated with a particular community of practice
  • a signifier , semiotic system
    • People read styles just as they read books or webpages: Styles are a way of expressing Clothes ascribe loyalty to a community and set of conventions. For instance, people may infer from your dress your personality, feelings, social status, and community memberships.
  • the linguistic choices a writer, company, corporation uses in its communications.

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


Style matters. A lot. A writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s . . . style impacts whether readers will even review much less comprehend a text. For instance, if a writer employs pompous, vague, abstract languagereaders are likely to ignore it. If a text lacks a focus—a thesis, research question, hypothesis—readers may dismiss the work as writer-based. When diction fails to account for the connotations of words, people can respond emotionally in ways the writer never imagined. Thus, it’s important to check the register for a text from multiple perspectives. This is especially true in school and workplace contexts where an inappropriate style can result in dire consequences.

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. Often, 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 at the beauty may be reserved for poets and subject matter experts in advertising and marketing, the average writer can create sentences that do more than simply convey information.

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

  • 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.

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

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.

Style from a Global Perspective vs. a 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 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 invoke a sense of competence and commitment by avoiding errors of diction, grammar, mechanics, punctuation, sentences.

Style & Subjectivity

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 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 linguistics, cognitive psychology, and literature on writing processes (aka composition), style is studied from a developmental perspective. Primer-type sentences; vague language, generalizations and editing problems are interpreted as evidence of simplistic and dualistic thinking.

[ Writing Studies ]

Style & Creativity

In Interviews of writers @ work, writers often equate learning to write with finding their unique voice. This is especially true in genres that prize creativity and literary language.

[ Composition ]

Style & the Writing Process

In order to employ a style appropriate for a particular rhetorical context, you need to

  • 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.


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,