Audio Version (June 2020):
"Style" refers to the way in which a writer expresses something. Much as clothing style can shape how we see a person, writing style can shape how we feel about the writer and their ideas. A writing style can give pleasure through elegant, graceful, and pleasing word combinations.
However, most writers and teachers of writing agree that clarity should be our first goal. Any stylistic choices we make should also help our readers understand our points. In turn, writing clearly will generally make for good style. British poet Matthew Arnold advised "Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style."1
Professors and students alike can be tempted to write in a wordy, complex, self-consciously scholarly style. This is an understandable mistake. We want to make our words sound formal and authoritative in part because, in the past, academic culture has favored such an ornamented style. Some call it “academese.” Compare the following two versions of a sentence:
Academese style: “To satisfy her hunger for nutrition, she consumed the bread.”
Straightforward style: “She was hungry, so she ate the bread.”1
Clearly, the academese style runs the risk of becoming tedious and alienating readers. Unnecessary jargon, fancy vocabulary, and convoluted sentences can make anything harder to understand.
The academese style also signals elitism. It shows off a high level of education. As Joseph Williams puts it, "it is a language of exclusion that a diverse and democratic society cannot tolerate."2 The culture is shifting among scholars to favor plainer language and insist on clarity. Readers, including professors, are much more likely to find a self-consciously highbrow writing style annoying rather than impressive. As the saying goes3, any fool can make simple things complicated; it takes a genius to make complicated things simple.
Of course, as writers we look for ways to develop confidence in our voices, to take ourselves seriously and make sure we are taken seriously. We can develop this sense of confidence, however, without fancy vocabulary or a hyper-formal, fussy style. Removing the pressure to sound academic can be a relief. Sometimes we can just say something very bluntly and simply and leave it at that. Confidence will come as we clarify our thinking, and writing in a straightforward style can help us to do that. Unclear and bloated prose gets in the way, both for the writer and the reader. Focusing on saying plainly what we mean can free us up to make intellectual progress.
Don't worry about style until the end
The best way to achieve clarity and concision in writing is to separate the drafting process from the revision process. Experienced writers routinely produce vague, tortuous, and bloated drafts, and are happy to do so. It usually means that we're onto an interesting idea. We may express the same idea in three or four different ways as we're getting thoughts down on paper. That’s fine. In fact, each repetition helps us develop key ideas and alternative approaches to conveying them. A snarly first draft is often a great achievement. We just need to allow ourselves the time at the end of the writing process to revise for clarity and concision (See Chapter 11: The Writing Process).
Once we have our ideas clear, it will be easier to write effective sentences. Editing for style can then be a satisfying and not overly burdensome part of the process. One common metaphor notes that a good edit is like the last twist of a camera lens that brings the whole picture into focus. In the following sections we will look at ways to edit sentences for clarity, concision, balance, and variety.
1Michael Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003), 3.
2Joseph Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. (New York, NY: Longman, 2003), 4.
3 Variously attributed to Albert Einstein, E.F. Schumacher, and Woody Guthrie.