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On Style: Versatility

Style has a few different definitions or categories. It can mean the individual's style (such as a unique way of framing stories, preferred imagery), grammatical style (active voice, sentence length, etc.), or the larger categorical styles (i.e., business writing, poetry, narrative.) In this case, I'm referring to categorical style. Each style is like a tool in your writing toolbox. More tools and the requisite confidence to wield them allows you to accomplish different tasks.

There are many different styles of writing, each of which serves its purpose. While this statement seems painfully obvious, it’s the first thing forgotten when entering a writing class or job. For example, as a kid, I was praised for poetry and short stories, only to be told my writing was sloppy and without focus in AP History. Twenty years later, I was praised for a master’s thesis that made me cringe every time I read the dry, repetitive prose. I have never been told, "This doesn't work for the style of writing you are attempting." I was only told, "Don't do this; it's bad writing."

It is obvious the writer needs to change their writing style for the context of their writing. However, most of my teachers and professors criticize from the perspective that theirs is the one true writing style. I've been told that passive voice is the worst thing one can do in writing, and I've been told to lead with powerful imagery and emotions. I've been told my writing has brought people to tears, and I've been told by one journalism professor that "your writing is bad, and there is really nothing I can do to fix it."

Why is this? Writing is just another form of speaking. People can judge you, scoff at your accent and mannerisms, or be intrigued or attracted to them, but it doesn't mean you can't speak. It can separate or connect you to your audience. In my office, surrounded by current and former military, swearing, slang, and acronyms are common and acceptable. However, in the classroom, I had to slow down, translate jargon, and keep foul language to a minimum to connect with my classmates.

What’s the solution?

  1. Don't give up. A bad grade on an essay, a remedial writing class, or a disdain for poetry does not mean you are a bad writer. Even if you hate writing, you are capable of it.

  2. Separate yourself from the piece. Not every piece of writing needs to excite, inspire, and represent you. If you are writing a memorandum for record or an information paper, it's supposed to be boring and simple. Let it be.

  3. Know why and for whom you are writing upfront. As an early exercise, write a few notes before you start drafting. Who is your audience? What is the purpose of the piece? What kind of style should it be in?

  4. Show & Tell. When you are a little more comfortable, think in terms of showing vs. telling. Showing uses imagery and emotion to inform the reader (her tears glistened in the moonlight) while telling describes it from a detached perspective (she cried). Business and academic writing will have more telling, and fiction and poetry have more showing.

  5. Keep writing! In as many styles as you can, write a poem or a song once in a while! Learning writing styles is like learning a language. The first makes it easier to learn a second, which makes the third even easier. Every style you practice will make you a more versatile and stronger writer.


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