Writing Style Conventions

Style describes the manner in which an author writes. Style includes elements such as diction (word usage), syntax (sentence structure), tone (author’s attitude toward the story), mood (author’s attitude toward the readers), voice (author’s relationship with the narrator), and point of view. Style can be formal or informal, neutral or distinctive.

When we attempt to distinguish good writing, we refer to prose that, for one reason or another, moves us as readers. Bad writing, then, may be considered prose that fails to move the readers as the author intended. The following writing style conventions should help elevate prose, or, at least, may prevent your writing from falling into the category of bad writing (writing that fails to move the reader as intended). The following conventions are not hard and fast rules; there are occasions when these conventions should be deviated from.

Note that style does not necessarily mean grammatical. Sometimes a grammatically incorrect sentence has a better style than a grammatically correct one–which is to say that it moves the reader in a way that a grammatical version of the same sentence may not.

Active Voice – Use the active voice whenever possible. This means avoiding “to be” verbs: is, was, were, are, be, being, and been. These verbs tell instead of show. The active voice also allows you to be specific about character or setting. For example, “I have a puppy,” provides little detail, but “I chose the runt of the litter, a small, feisty Yorkshire terrier,” gives you a glimpse of a tiny dog with a big attitude.

Avoid Elegant Variation (Most of the Time) – Elegant Variation is the use of synonyms to denote the same thing in order to avoid repetition. The use of elegant variation is considered bad writing insofar as it places aesthetics over substance. An example of a bad elegant variation often appears in the form of dialogue tags. When a writer feels that “he said” is becoming too monotonous, he may attempt to vary the dialogue tag inappropriately with an action (e.g., “he smiled,” “he sighed,” “he rolled his eyes”). These variations not only alter meaning, they make bad grammar, since a person cannot speak by smiling, sighing, or rolling his eyes. That said, many writers believe that there are effective uses of elegant variation, such as when it achieves some effect other than pure aesthetics (e.g., as a joke or when it helps to define a character).

Avoid Jargon – Jargon are special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession but are difficult for others to understand. Using jargon runs the risk of readers not understanding your words, and using too much jargon may appear pretentious. A limited amount of jargon may be appropriate if your writing is directed toward a specialized audience who will understand specialized terms of art.

Avoid Nominalizations – Nominalizations are verbs that have been converted into nouns (e.g., intend becomes intention, present becomes presentation). Nominalizations should be avoided because they substitute a strong verb with a bloated noun. This results in a longer and less active sentence.

Noun-to-Verbs – Nouns may also act as verbs. For example, she breakfested with the neighbors once a week.

Vary Sentence Length – On average a sentence should be between 25 and 30 words long. Sentences longer than this run the risk of losing the reader’s attention. However, there are times when a sentence should be much shorter or longer. A short sentence is useful when trying to make a powerful point. A longer sentence may be helpful when a person or object must be described in great detail and using all of the five senses. In legal writing, longer sentences are a good place to hide unfavorable information (e.g., information that works against your client), because the reader is more likely to glance over this information.

Vary Sentence Structure – In most instances, writers are well-advised to keep the preferred subject-verb-object order that is found in sentences such as “Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Raven.” In the preceding sentence, Edgar Allan Poe, the subject, is emphasized. If every sentence were like this, however, the writing would become dull and monotonous. On occasion, a writer may invert structure either for style or, better yet, effect. In our sentence, we might instead say “The Raven was written by Edgar Allan Poe.” This inversion places emphasis on The Raven, takes emphasis away from Edgar Allan Poe, and varies the ordinary sentence structure.

Use Parallel Structure – This refers to using similar patterns or grammatical forms in sentences. This technique adds symmetry so that two or more parts of the sentence have the same form, emphasizing similarities or differences. Consider the rhythm of this common example: Like father, like son.

Use Topic Sentences – A topic sentence begins a paragraph and provides a road map of where that paragraph is going to take the reader. Good topic sentences should be concise and clear. Paragraphs missing topic sentences can be confusing and fail to inform the reader properly.

Use Transitional Phrases – Transitional phrases are words or group of words that connect sentences. Examples of transitional phrases include: meanwhile, consequently, on the other hand, etc.