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Style Tips for Students - Writing Center at TCC

Style can mean two things in college writing. There are special rules for writing research bibliographies and citations in the MLA and APA systems.

These are referred to as the style rules. Those who are writing research papers can find them in other handouts.
This handout covers writing style.

Writing style means the way in which a particular writer manages his or her words and sentences. It is the creative part of writing, giving life to the writer's personality. A writer always has choices when it comes to sentence form. The three main types of sentences are simple, compound, complex and compound/complex.In addition to a variety of sentence forms, a writer may use other elements such as figures of speech, parallelism, modifiers, even the so-called "periodic" sentence in order to individualize his style.


Here is a paragraph written with no attention to style:

I am a young, strong woman. I am not very brave. My friends told me they were going on a skiing trip. I agreed to go with them. I never had skied. I didn't admit it to anyone. A big ski lift took us up to the top of the mountain. I was frightened to death. I went over the mountain's edge. I tumbled all the way down, but didn't get hurt. My friends all said, "Why didn't you tell us?"

The above was written entirely with simple sentences (subject-verb-object). To give the paper more life and the reader more variety, the writer should use compound and complex sentences in addition to the simple ones. A compound sentence simply combines thoughts by connecting two sentences (or independent clauses) with a coordinating conjunction. She could combine the first two sentences by saying, "I am a young, strong woman, but I am not terribly brave."

Another option is to use a complex sentence. This includes a dependent clause and again carries two or more thoughts into one sentence. A dependent clause tends to explain the rest of the sentence. In the third, fourth and fifth sentences above, she can make it flow better by using a dependent clause.

"When my friends told me they were going on a skiing trip, I thoughtlessly agreed, although I had never skied before."

Now we switch to the skiing area with a new paragraph, using dependent clauses to set the scene.

"As we rode to the top of the mountain on the huge ski lift, I was too proud to talk about the mess I was being drawn into. When I looked far down at the distant parking lot, I was frightened to death. However, nothing would have forced me to confess the truth, that out of a group of high school students, the only one who had never been on skis was I."

Having achieved smoothness and rhythm, she can create a more vivid picture by using figures of speech, similes, metaphors or an aphorism.


She could write, "As I glanced at the distant mountains from my lofty perch, I felt like an eagle gazing down on the world--an eagle without wings! Instead of a deadly swoop after prey, how would I land? I gave an uneagle-like shiver."

Here, the metaphor involving the eagle adds another dimension to the story; her feeling of unworthiness was outlined clearly, along with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Another device used to add power to a composition is parallelism, a repetition of sentence form to emphasize a point.

Returning to the skier, "I gathered my nerve; I plunged over the edge; I tumbled down the mountain in a whirl of skis, sweaters and poles. I landed in a pile of soft snow. I was still alive."

Parallelism can also be used for dramatic effect as in President Kennedy's plea, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." It is particularly useful for concluding a speech or an essay.

The writer's own personality occasionally shows through. This is particularly true in humorous writing.

To conclude the skiing story the writer might say, "Why didn't you tell us?" asked my friends. I looked at them through snow-crusted eyes. What should I say? Should I tearfully confess I was too proud? I brushed the snow off my face and told them, "You didn't ask!"

Writing style is a personal thing; yours should be different from anyone else's. In the skier's story you get an idea of the young lady's personality: her vulnerability, a youthful urge to keep up with her peers, and a self-saving sense of humor. Writing is a bit like dancing. You have basic moves to follow, but the best dancers have their own rhythm, their own flair. Writers of fiction, in fact, may become known for their striking individual styles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, to name two. Fitzgerald favored subtle psychological flourishes in his descriptions, while Hemingway wrote "hard" masculine prose comprising terse, brusque sentences. Contrast the two authors' styles in these selections:

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby:

"He smiled understandinglymuch more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you, just as you wanted to be understood, believed in you, just as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

Hemingway describes Brett:

"Brett was damned good looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater with a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy's. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey."


TIPS on BETTERING YOUR STYLE

  1. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Make sure your message is not vague to the reader. If the message is not clear in your own mind, that sentence, paragraph or essay of yours still needs work.
  2. Say what you mean not only clearly, but concisely, e.g. using as few words as possible. Students often worry how they will ever "get 750 words" for an essay so they shift into automatic pilot, repeating themselves, writing in circles, and padding like mad. Yet this is a waster of time, fools no one, and earns a poor grade. "How do I get 750 words, then?" A student may ask. The answer: write concrete example, descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue. If you make each word count in this way you will get your "quota," derive satisfaction in your work (both style and content), and earn a better mark!

One other kind of wordiness is that of writers who have a clear message all right, but who love to hear themselves talk. Readers are not often so adoring, so try not to get carried away.

Avoid construction that could be confusing. Take the following sentence: "Terrified by the prospect of giving birth, the doctor seemed to the young woman like a bearded Mephistopheles, rather than like a kindly care provider." The use of a misplaced modifier conveys that the bearded doctor was terrified at the prospect of giving birth, which although plausible, is not what the writer meant. As you learn to become a better critical reader as well as writer, you will know to write the sentence this way: "Terrified by the prospect of giving birth, the young woman viewed the doctor as a bearded Mephisto rather than . . ."

Like to develop your style? Remember that THE WRITING CENTER is your Writing Center where instructors can assist you. You do not have to bring a research paper or essay or even an assignment. We also work with creative writers. Just write and bring it in and we'll talk stylistics!

Prepared by the Writing Center at Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, VA., April 1999.

Comments: writcent@tcc.edu
Last updated on August 4, 2003
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