Writing style

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This article is about writing prose. For writing style guides, see style guide.

Writing style refers to the manner in which an author chooses to write to his or her readers. A style reveals both the writer's personality and voice, but it also shows how he or she perceives the audience. The choice of a conceptual writing style molds the overall character of the work. This occurs through changes in syntactical structure, parsing prose, adding diction, and organizing figures of thought into usable frameworks.


Business Style[edit]

Business style is very similar to technical style, except that longer sentences[citation needed] are acceptable. The phraseology is likely to be somewhat more subjective, with relatively more opinions rather than facts.

Conversational Style[edit]

Conversational style is identified by the use of personal pronouns, contractions and colloquialisms, and letters[clarification needed] and other differences in vocabulary and grammar representing a different linguistic register.


Situation and purpose[edit]

The author needs to decide whether the goal is to inform, persuade, or entertain, and will tailor the style to the situation and purpose. For example, a person writing a letter would use different styles for a letter of complaint and a letter of condolence. A letter of complaint would require a business style, while a letter of condolence would need a conversational tone.

In fiction writing, the style must represent the author's personal expression of these events that comprise the plot; setting mood, and leading the reader to a subjective, non-literal[clarification needed], emotional understanding of the subject.

In contrast, an emotional appeal would not be appropriate in writing a commercial letter. Such a letter has to be essentially factual, focused, and brief, taking into account the objective of the letter, as well as legal and ethical considerations.


Sentence Structure[edit]

A writer controls not only the density of prose but also its distribution. Within the rules of grammar, the writer can arrange words in many ways. A sentence may state the main proposition first and then modify it, or it may contain language to prepare the reader before stating the main proposition.

Varying the style may avoid monotony. However, in technical writing, using different styles to make two similar utterances makes the reader ask whether the use of different styles was intended to carry additional meaning.

Stylistic choices may be influenced by the culture. In the modern age, for instance, the loose sentence has been favored in all modes of discourse. In classical times, the periodic sentence held equal or greater favor, and during the Age of Enlightenment, the balanced sentence was a favorite of writers.

Loose sentence[edit]

The most common sentence in modern usage, the loose sentence begins with the main point (an independent clause), followed by one or more subordinate clauses. For example:

Uncle Tom's Cabin is a very influential novel, for one thing because it shares the popular self-righteous sentimentality of Cat in the Hat.

The cat sat on the mat, purring softly, after it licked its paws.

According to Francis Christensen:

The loose sentence ... characterized the anti-Ciceronian movement in the seventeenth century. This movement,is the one could be written by the mug or by the wrong braid according to Robert S. Alexander [“The Baroque Style in Prose” (1929)] began with Montaigne and Bacon and continued with such men as Donne, Browne, Taylor, Pascal. To Montaigne, its art was the art of being natural; to Pascal, its eloquence was the eloquence that mocks formal eloquence; to Bacon, it presented knowledge, 'Contemporary Rhetoric: A Conceptual Background with Readings,' p.348)

Periodic sentence[edit]

In general, a periodic sentence places the main point in the middle or at the end of the sentence. In the former case, the main point is modified by subordinate clauses before and after its position in the sentence. In the latter case, the main point is modified by preceding subordinate clauses.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. (Henry David Thoreau)

The purpose of such form is well-stated by Adams Sherman Hill in The Foundation of Rhetoric (1897):

To secure force in a sentence, it is necessary not only to choose the strongest words and to be as concise as is consistent with clearness, but also to arrange words, phrases, and clauses in the order which gives a commanding position to what is most important, and thus fixes the attention on the central idea.

Balanced sentence[edit]

A balanced sentence is characterized by parallel structure: two or more parts of the sentence have the same form, emphasizing similarities or differences.


Diction—the writer's distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression in a work—depends on the mode which is being written in. Argumentative and expository prose on a particular subject matter frequently makes use of a set of jargon in which the subject matter is commonly discussed. By contrast, narrative and descriptive prose is open to the vast variety of words. Insofar as a style of diction can be discerned, however, it is best to examine the diction against a number of spectrums:

  • Abstract-concrete: how much of the diction is physical?
  • General-specific: to what degree is the diction precise, to what degree is it vague?
  • Denotation-connotation
  • Literal-metaphorical

Other attributes of diction include:

  • Density
  • Length
  • weight


The connotation of a word refers to the special meaning, apart from its dictionary definition, that it may convey. Connotation especially depends on the audience. The word "dog" denotes any animal from the genus canis, but it may connote friendship to one reader and terror to another. This partly depends on the reader's personal dealings with dogs, but the author can provide context to guide the reader's interpretation.

Deliberate use of connotation may involve selection of a word to convey more than its dictionary meaning, or substitution of another word that has a different shade of meaning. The many words for dogs have a spectrum of implications regarding the dog's training, obedience, or expected role, and may even make a statement about the social status of its owner ("lap dog" versus "cur"). Even synonyms have different connotations: slender, thin, skinny may each convey different images to the reader's mind. The writer should choose the connotation, positive, negative, or neutral, that supports the mood.

Writing for the learned, connotation may involve etymology or make reference to classic works. In schoolbooks, awareness of connotation can avoid attracting extraneous ideas (as when writing "Napoleon was a bigger influence than Frederick the Great on world history" provokes thoughts of Napoleon's physical stature). In encyclopedias, words should connote authority and dispassion; the writer should avoid words whose connotations suggest bias, such as pejorative words.


Punctuation is generally so standardized that it rarely is a factor in a writer's style. The same is true for gratuitous changes to spelling and grammar, unless the goal is to represent a regional or ethnic dialect in which such changes are customary. There are, however, a number of punctuation marks that still cause frustration and confusion such as where to put an apostrophe or how to use a semi-colon.


Some figures of speech are phrases that briefly describe a complicated concept through connotation. However, some of these phrases are used so frequently that they have lost their novelty, sincerity, and perhaps even their meaning. They are disparagingly referred to as clichés or bromides. Whether a given expression has fallen into this category is a matter of opinion. A reader who knows, or is a member of, the target audience may have a strong opinion that one or the other alternative seems better-written.



See also[edit]