How to Choose A Good Writing Style

Language skills like writing are called skills because they require practice and nuanced understanding. Using English at an advanced level is not as simple as learning rules: it can be flexible, regionally specific or individual. In writing, many of these areas can be grouped under the label style.

The way we use style is subjective. Consider this dictionary definition:

  • Style: a particular procedure by which something is done; a manner or a way. (Oxford Living Dictionaries)

This includes the way you use language. If there are two (or more) ways to do something in writing, it may be considered a matter of style. I often use this expression when teaching, and it appears throughout this book. 

When you have a choice in how to write something, or when a different way of saying something cannot be called incorrect, for any objective reason, it may be called a matter of style.

To be clear about what is not a matter of style, some errors, such as grammar or spelling mistakes may be clearly incorrect:

  • Tim eats a cake yesterday. (INCORRECT – it is contradictory to combine the present tense with a past time.)
  • Tim ate a cake yesterday. (CORRECT)

As a matter of style, the different options should both be arguably correct:

  • Bob quickly ate a cake yesterday.
  • Bob ate a cake yesterday, quickly.

The first example here is more conventional and more common, but the second form is also acceptable. There may be a handful of reasons to use the second sentence over the first, which we could analyse, but there may also be no reason other than the writer or speaker chose to say it this way, without necessarily thinking about it. 

In writing, such style choices go beyond what you wish to say to include how things are technically written, covering issues relating to formatting, punctuation, vocabulary, grammar and more.

Style choices are very important because there are so many elements of the language that are flexible. Many choices must be decided by style rather than any easily applied rules. The differences between academic or business writing, or regional uses of English, are all matters of style. 

They are not objectively correct or incorrect but fit a particular purpose. That said, flexible use of English is less forgiving in writing than in spoken English. People may not notice or correct variations in spoken English, as physical and social cues aid understanding, but people read in more neutral tones and expect a higher level of accuracy in writing. 

To really advance in writing, as well as mastering the conventional rules of English, you therefore also need to understand which style choices are acceptable or advisable in different circumstances. 

This might be decided through convention, for example, the stock phrases used when starting letters, or it may be through a particular set of rules, such as given in a style guide.

Style guides are collections of rules that cover the many areas of English that might be considered flexible. Their purpose is to provide consistency. There is no definitive, correct style for English, so there are plenty of style guides to choose from. 

Of the published guides available, a popular starting point for UK styles is New Hart’s Rules: the Oxford Style Guide (Waddingham, 2014), while for US styles you might start with The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago, 2017). The Elements of Style (Strunk & White, 1999), is another slim but informative example, which has been used in the United States since the early twentieth century. 

While such books are invaluable for publications, they are not used by everyone. Many companies and institutions (such as universities or government offices) maintain their own in-house style guides, with rules that all employees should follow. These are not necessarily standard English rules, though they will typically be commonly used.

However you choose to settle your style decisions, there are three crucial things you can do to ensure an appropriate style:

  • Use a style that is clear and accurate.
  • Use a style that fits the purpose of your writing.
  • Be consistent.

For clarity and accuracy, choose the style that is easiest to understand. To fit the purpose of your writing, compare with other examples of writing in the same field, and consider the tips throughout this book as to where one style may be expected over another. For consistency, use the same style throughout a document.

While styles can be subjective, ignoring these three points could still lead to a mistake. Possible style options that are correct out of context may become incorrect when applied in a specific context. For example:

  • Using complicated language to provide simple instructions.
  • Using slang in a formal letter.
  • Using both apostrophes and quotation marks to denote speech.

The use of complex language, slang and quotation marks are all possible in written English if you choose to use them, but in the examples, above they could be considered incorrect. The first is unclear, the second inappropriate and the third inconsistent.

To start thinking more constructively about style, it is important to always be asking why something is written in a certain way, and if that is the best way to do it. When you see something unusual in your reading, ask yourself if it is a matter of style, and if so, why? What is its purpose? 

When you are writing, ask yourself the same questions. If you are presented with a choice, ask what difference each choice makes, and try to justify your reasons for choosing one option over another.

Rather than focus on one style over another, my intention is to encourage an understanding of the differences, to help you choose for yourself. That being said, there are certain style choices I support throughout, which could be considered a style choice, is clear and simple writing. 

Such choices are ones that I have found helped me.

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