Writer's Style

Writing style is a difficult concept to wrap a definition around because it is very subjective: One reader may appreciate a writer's style while another may not. This is why I always challenge my students to get to know their English teacher and classmates as a reader; a writer who knows how to write to her/his audience consistently finds success.

All writers have their own natural writing style; in college English classes, it will be the student's challenge to merge her writing style to the requirements of each paper. This means that college writers need to learn how to adapt to the writing occasion & audience. Some students avoid adapting to each writing occasion because they feel that it might stunt their creative abilities. On the contrary, adapting to each writing occasion makes students versatile writers who can mold their work for any writing situation.

Writing style doesn't just "happen." Writers need to consciously decide early in their pre-writing what kind of style they will adopt. A critical question that students in Freshman Composition should ask themselves is whether or not they will suppress emotions so that the essay can sound objective and professional, show emotions in a covert way by using words that carry specific connotations, or openly express emotions in the writing piece.

The answer to these questions again points back to the writer’s audience and her writing occasion. For example, imagine that a student is writing an essay in an English 101 class about airport security. Due to the personal and highly unpleasant experience this topic evokes, the writer chooses to express vehement anger over current airport security procedures. See the example:

Strong Emotion: Airports have complete disregard for the decency of human privacy, and their humiliating procedures should be abolished.

The writer has clearly not anticipated the writing occasion and her audience because the arguments, while valid, may not be well-received by classmates and the instructor, particularly because few members of the audience can relate to or imagine the personal experience of the writer. It would be wise, then, to suppress the overt communication of the strong feelings. The emotion can still be presented in the paper, but it should be subdued through words that won't turn readers away:

Suppressed Emotion: While intending to promote safety and security for all passengers, airports need to reevaluate their security procedures so that they will not violate the personal privacy of individual passengers.

This example highlights the common struggle writers face, the struggle of deciding between emotional writing and more detached writing. But when would it be appropriate for this writer to express the strong emotions related to airport security? Different writing occasions that would allow for such strong emotions could be specialty magazines, an on-line website, in an opinion section of the newspaper, or perhaps in a blog or specialty group forum.

Spoken vs. Written Voice

Emotional versus detached writing relates to a writer’s style, and it is a common struggle in freshman composition.  In trying to address this struggle, I have named these two different kinds of writing (emotional vs. detached) as the spoken and written voice, respectively. Spoken voice refers to the writing that one typically hears in daily conversation. This voice is more informal; it is full of slang and local language. It can be somewhat pedestrian, and it does not always conform to standard grammar.  But writers should not mistake the spoken voice as weak; it is a very powerful style of writing. When used properly, it can evoke robust feelings and emotions in readers. Fantastic pieces of literature such as Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, 1984, or even Pride and Prejudice are saturated with the spoken voice in written form. Writing in the spoken voice takes readers to the unique setting, time period, and it brings about certain moods in the novel. The authors of these works take into account their audience and writing occasion before choosing to adopt their writing style.

In Freshman Composition, the writing occasion is an academic essay and the audience is usually the student’s professor/classmates. With that in mind, students should use what I’ve coined as the “written voice”. The written voice still allows students to incorporate their own personality and creativity into their piece, but it also helps students divert from using common language. The written voice is professional language that sounds somewhat detached, unemotional, and neutral. Emotion CAN be used in the written voice, but it needs to be done carefully. For example, if a writer would like to express distaste over a government policy, then she/he can express this idea in two different ways:

Spoken Voice: The government better recognize the pain and harm they are putting on good people. Their selfish ways show their brainlessness.

Written Voice: The government needs to seriously reconsider their oppressive measures. Their lack of care can seriously affect citizens.

Notice that the second example is more detached, professional, and overt or obvious passions are bridled. Writers are encouraged to use words that carry more neutral connotations as opposed to heavy ones.

Also, students will not write entire sentences that carry the spoken voice. Common or spoken language will sprinkle a student’s writing accidentally, one word at a time. A typical example of spoken voice that seeps into freshman composition is when students write terms such as “So anyway's”, “So like”, “I say that…”, and “Personally, I think…”. Students also tend to write short phrases as if they were complete sentences. For example, I have seen the phrase, “Not good.” and “No way.” written as a sentence. Statements such as these sound good when spoken out loud, but in writing, these lacks a subject/verb pair—the basic building block of a sentence.

As I grade student writing, I will often point out to the student areas where the “spoken voice” has snuck in, and students are encouraged to improve in this area of writing over the semester. Controlling the spoken voice is a crucial stylistic of freshman composition.

Style also involves another aspect relating to VOICE: Point of view. When English teachers talk about Point of View & Voice, they are referring to a special grouping of pronouns. Point of view is divided into three voices, or three groups of pronouns known as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. The most skilled writer pays attention to point of view because she/he knows that it is a key element in writing STYLE.

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