The Elements of Style
Everyone has their own unique style based on their personality, how they write, and their storytelling techniques. But essentially, someone’s writing style is the sum of the following elements: voice, tone, diction, and punctuation.
Voice is the personality that comes through the writing based on the author’s background, perspective, and experiences. The story the author is telling will be a culmination of their opinions and culture, which shape the style of the piece.
Tone is the attitude the writer has toward the subject of their writing, which can affect the style. If someone is writing a persuasive essay and they passionately disagree with the topic, their tone may come across as angry, which informs their style.
Diction is central to a writer’s style, as word choice is a key factor in how readers interpret the text. Whether writers use words with a negative connotation, metaphors, or abstract or literal language, it all makes a difference and contributes to that author’s style.
Though there are rules that govern the use of punctuation in literature, there is some wiggle room where writers can play around to make a statement or impact the way a reader understands a point. This is especially true in poetry, where word breaks, dashes, periods, and commas are used to help get the meaning of the poem across. For example, in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” she uses dashes at the end of each line, which aren’t technically necessary, to parallel the theme of immortality.
The Types of Style
Different styles can be influenced by an author’s skill set or by the medium of writing—whether it’s a book or a newspaper, for example. The most common types of styles are expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative.
This kind of writing does not include the author’s opinion. Its purpose is to provide non-biased information to an audience using accepted facts and statistics. This fact-based style is common in textbooks and informational websites. In fact, this very article is an example of expository writing.
Writers use descriptive style to create a visual, and it usually includes sensory words to evoke a well-rounded picture of what is being described. Rather than state facts about a person or event, this style uses poetic images to get the point across, often using metaphors and similar devices to paint the picture. This style of writing is often seen in poetry and novels.
In persuasive style, you know the author’s opinion because they’re trying to sway you into thinking a certain way. The point of this kind of writing is to convince the reader to believe what the author believes. This is often used in persuasive essays, advertisements, media articles, speeches, and cover letters.
This style of writing consists of a plot with characters and a story. Rather than simply convey information, narrative writers create a full story to communicate a message. It is commonly found in fiction novels and occasionally nonfiction writing.
Typically, writers don’t want to draw attention to their style; it should be natural and appropriate for the subject or genre. When the style overpowers the plot or subject matter, it’s known as purple prose. It’s when an author draws unneeded attention to their writing style using excessive adjectives, formal phrasing, or too many words, or when it’s too flowery or unnecessarily poetic. However, this only refers to writing that detracts from the story and doesn’t serve a purpose; this doesn’t apply to the characteristically flowery writing in classic novels or poetry.
The Function of Style
Every author has a writing style that individualizes their work. It’s what makes their writing interesting and what determines whether readers enjoy their pieces. Without a writing style, their work would be boring and monotone. Every choice the writer makes, including pacing, word choice, and tone determines how the reader will take in the message of their writing. It’s what makes you read all the books written by your favorite author; you know that no matter the plot, you’ll enjoy the way the story is told.
Examples of Style in Literature
1. Walt Whitman, “Thoughts”
OF persons arrived at high positions, ceremonies,
wealth, scholarships, and the like;
To me, all that those persons have arrived at, sinks
away from them, except as it results to their
Bodies and Souls,
So that often to me they appear gaunt and naked;
And often, to me, each one mocks the others, and
mocks himself or herself,
And of each one, the core of life, namely happiness,
is full of the rotten excrement of maggots,
And often, to me, those men and women pass unwit-
tingly the true realities of life, and go toward
And often, to me, they are alive after what custom has
served them, but nothing more,
And often, to me, they are sad, hasty, unwaked son-
nambules, walking the dusk.
Here, he’s telling readers that seeking wealth and status does more harm than good to the human soul. He describes what their bodies are reduced to after leading such a meaningless life, using phrases such as “rotten excrement” and “walking the dusk” to make his point.
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Nick is having dinner with his cousin Daisy, her husband, and a friend, and he begins to describe her countenance:
I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget […]
Fitzgerald uses descriptive language here to paint a picture of Nick’s cousin, describing auditory and visual senses to place the reader in the room as if they were one of her admirers.
3. Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders
Detective Hercule Poirot awakens Captain Hastings to share that another murder had taken place:
Poirot was standing by my bedside gently shaking me by the shoulder. One glance at his face brought me from semi-consciousness into full possession of my faculties […] As I sprang from bed and made a rapid toilet, he recounted briefly what he had just learnt over the telephone.
This example of narrative style, as the scene describes the interaction between two characters at a crucial plot point.
Further Resources on Style
William Shrunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is a classic book on how to make a large impact with your writing style.
Writer’s Edit wrote ten tips for developing your own unique writing style.