Style refers to the way we express ourselves in writing. While there is no one standard style that every writer must go after, there are two key elements in an effective writing style. One is readability, meaning the use of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in such a way as to communicate facts and ideas clearly. The other is elegance, meaning the use of suitable and interesting words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs to produce graceful, unobtrusive prose that will keep a reader’s attention and interest. Good style communicates information effectively. It moves the reader along lightly from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and one section of the paper to the next. Bad style is boring and often confusing.
Suggestions for Making Your Writing Understandable and Interesting
Write in coherent paragraphs. A coherent paragraph is a group of sentences all relating to one basic idea. The very first sentence is often a topic sentence, meaning that it states the unifying theme that ties the sentences together. In a paragraph, each sentence should develop logically from the preceding one. Often, one should use “connector” words or phrases to make this logical development clear to the reader.
Write paragraphs that are neither too brief nor too long. Avoid paragraphs that contain only one sentence. If you have a paragraph that is more than about a half page in length, attempt to break it into at least two paragraphs.
Begin most sentences with the subject, rather than with a dependent clause, an adverb, or a prepositional phrase. Such devices may provide useful diversity if used sparingly, but they often slow the natural flow of ideas. Bad: John Smith, realizing that he had perhaps only one last chance to bring order to a community ripped by strife and lack of bureaucratic efficiency, determined to assume absolute control over the Jamestown settlers. Better: John Smith determined to assume absolute control over the Jamestown settlers, realizing that this might be his last chance to bring order to a community ripped by strife and lack of bureaucratic efficiency.
Write with an economy of words. Communicate a fact, opinion, argument, etc. with as few words as possible. Good writers always go after this principle. Several of the following suggestions will contribute to developing a taut prose style.
Do not use empty, cliche words and phrases in your writing. These include “Generally,” “in general,” “basically,” “it went as goes after,” “truly,” “it has been proven time and time again that. ” “the fact of the matter is. ” Here is a very wordy example. Bad: It is a safe assumption to state the idea that the attitudes of our forefathers have affected the entire course of history. Better: Delete the very first ten words. Begin the sentence with: The attitudes of our forefathers. (Communicates the same idea much more forcefully and directly.)
Avoid the passive voice wherever possible. Use the active voice instead. Passive voice: President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. The same information, recast in the active voice: John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. (The passive voice is usually in the form shown in the very first example: the word “was,” followed by the past tense of the verb, followed by a preposition.)
Overuse of the passive voice is one of the most common style errors in college student papers. The passive voice is feeble; things are happening to people rather than people doing things. Also, the passive voice is wordier, therefore more boring. (One cannot always avoid the passive voice, especially if the subject is not known, or if it would sound strange [or be wordy] to specify a subject.)
Keep sentences relatively brief. Overly long sentences slow the reader down and can hide the writer’s meaning. One way to keep sentences brief is to avoid excessive use of dependent clauses. If a portion of your paper seems stiff and difficult to go after, count the number of dependent clauses. If several go after one after the other, rewrite.
Do not overuse adjectives. Decently used, adjectives can add interest and clarity. Too many adjectives, however, slow down the flow of your ideas.
Do not string together prepositional phrases in a sentence. It makes it difficult for a reader to understand what you are attempting to say. Bad: The civil rights movement of the post-World War II era among black activists in the South and sympathetic liberals in other parts of the nation and among some leaders in both major political parties was part of a progressive tradition aimed at elements of society with legitimate complaints against the prejudices of the majority of persons in twentieth-century America. Better: The post-World War II civil rights movement attracted black activists in the South and sympathetic liberals via the nation and had the support of some leaders in both major political parties. It was part of a progressive tradition which sought to meet the legitimate complaints of persons suffering racial discrimination at the palms of many twentieth-century Americans.
Avoid using prepositional phrases conveying possession wherever possible. Switch to the possessive form. Wordy: The chief talent of Daniel Webster was his bounty of oratory. Better: Daniel Webster’s chief talent was.
Always use the past tense when writing about things that happened in the past. Bad: The problem, as Houston views it, is how to keep his army intact. Meantime, Santa Anna pursues him continuously. (Switch to viewed, was, and pursued .)
Avoid repeating words and/or phrases in close proximity to one another. Such prose is boring. The following excerpt from an actual history term paper illustrates the problem:
It seemed the years of prosperity were to come to an end for Castroville. In the 1880s, Castroville rejected a proposition from a railroad company due to the cost and it was subsequently built five miles south of Castroville. This killed the freighting business of Castroville almost at once, and in 1892 the county seat was also moved to Hondo. Many of the people of Castroville moved to the fresh county seat, while others moved to San Antonio. Better:
The situation switched in the 1880s, after Castroville rejected a proposition from a railroad company to construct a line through the town. It was subsequently built five miles south of the community. This quickly killed off the local freighting business. In 1892 the county seat transferred to Hondo. Many Castrovillians moved there, while others withdrew to San Antonio. A particular case of the same problem: Avoid repeating pronouns referring to the same person across a paragraph (she, her, hers, she, she, her, etc.). This is boring. Solution: In some of the instances, use of the person’s name, title, or other words and phrases which identify the person.
Clarity requests that you identify significant persons and terms in your paper. Your theoretical target reader is not your professor but a fellow college student who is not an accomplished on your subject or on history in general. Therefore, when you introduce a person in your prose, shortly identify him or her. Also, if you introduce a term that is not familiar to the typical college student, shortly explain it in the text.
Elegance in Writing Style
This is difficult to define and describe. Perhaps it is useful to suggest that elegant writing style is neither colloquial and “slangy” nor too much given to fancy, polysyllabic words, either. It is graceful, aesthetically pleasing, and unobstrusive. Following are suggestions to help you write with in an elegant style.
Wherever possible, use brief words (generally of Anglo-Saxon origin) rather than longer ones (often derived from Latin). In 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to United States President Franklin Roosevelt, requesting war matériel to stave off defeat at the arms of Nazi Germany. These were his words: “Give us the devices, and we will finish the job.” He did not say, “Produce to us the implements, and we will accomplish the assignment.” While the quotation is not taken from historical writing, it suggests that brief words often budge the reader along more effectively than long ones.
Do not use contractions in formal writing. Example: Alexander didn’t end his conquests once he had liberated the Greek colonies of Ionia from Persian rule. (Write out both words, did not.)
Do not use slang or colloquialisms in formal writing. Jackson was fixing to (switch to about to ) leave for his plantation in Tennessee but reconsidered when he heard what Calhoun had said. Grant was inebriated a lot of the time. (Switch to much .)
In most instances, avoid using private pronouns referring to you, the author of the paper. Examples:
It seems to me that Senator McCarthy should have realized that he had gone too far in his “witch-hunt” for suspected Communists. (Delete the very first five words.) Napoleon’s greatest mistake, as I see it, was his invasion of Russia in 1812. (Delete the phrase set off by commas.)
Related video: How to write a good essay: Paraphrasing the question
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