Writing and Style Angst

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by AnaMaria Seglie

One day a long, long time ago, in a far-away land named Nebraska, a younger version of myself sat listening to a lecture on writing style in a first-year college writing course. While the professor discussed vibrant sentences and fluid prose, I remember thinking: how can you grade me on style? After all, isn’t style inherently subjective – it’s my style, my taste, my flare, no?

If you ask any writing teacher, style is one of the most difficult things to teach because of this exact logic. It gives off an aura of idiosyncrasy and intuition. Students, like my undergraduate self, bulk that it is too personal and cannot be fairly measured. And yet, if we take a closer look at writing that most would agree upon as exceptional and sophisticated, there are, in fact, some stylistic commonalities – elements that sharpen, clarify, and distinguish strong writing from clunky, boring, or opaque prose. For example, most readers – whether my college self or my current one – can probably agree that wordy prose is not only less eloquent but also less functional. Similarly, most readers would likely perceive prose that continuously repeats the same sentence structure as monotonous and boring. While I would never say that there is such a thing as a “right” style, there are some basic principles that prove helpful. Below are three commonly recommended style guides that provide a list of such principles:   

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Composed over nearly a hundred years ago, this classic guide and its many editions provide a series of tips for writing in American English. It covers everything from foundational principles of composition to commonly misused phrases.

Garner’s Modern English Usage, edited by Bryan Garner. This more recently published guide includes tips focused on the use of modern English, such as pronunciation and verbosity.

Modern Language Association Handbook and/or Chicago Manual of Style. Both of these guides are revised on a regular basis with updated tips. They include style and grammatical instructions, but are perhaps best known for their citation rules and research guidelines.

Upon browsing these style guides, you will notice that there are certainly some overlapping themes: clarity, concision, word usage/choice, grammar, and so forth. You will also notice there are some differences. The MLA Handbook, for example, focuses on research writing, while Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is intended for a more general readership. Such differences remind us that there are a variety of styles and that style is shaped by purpose and audience. FWIS courses also follow this rule. Each semester I provide my students with a list of style and grammar tips – the underlying principles of which can be found in some of these guides, but which also reflect some of the learning objectives and purposes of my particular courses. These are tips that, I believe, help clarify academic writing and which also represent the recurring problems I have found in my students’ papers.

If you are student looking for style tips for your own FWIS, consider the objectives that your instructor lists on his/her syllabus. Review his/her comments and consider which issues they continually note in your writing. Then, check out one of these style guides to find methods for fixing these stylistic issues. Though it may seem counter intuitive – as it did with me nigh on ten years ago – keep in mind that style does not necessarily mean embellishment, flourish, or colloquialism. It means engaging in a process of conscious crafting – that is, recognizing and cognizantly shaping your writing to reflect your voice with the greatest clarity. Work on it and own it!