Revising for Style

Learning Objectives

  • Revise for style and wordiness

Revising for Style

During the revision process, you also want to be scan for appropriate word choice, sentence fluency, and voice.

Have you ever ordered a dish in a restaurant and been not happy with its taste, even though it contained most of your favorite ingredients? Just as a meal might lack the finishing touches needed to spice it up, so too might a paragraph contain all the basic components but still lack the stylistic finesse required to engage a reader. Sometimes writers have a tendency to reuse the same sentence pattern throughout their writing.

Like any repetitive task, reading text that contains too many sentences with the same length and structure can become monotonous and boring. Experienced writers mix it up by using an assortment of sentence patterns, rhythms, and lengths. Using a mixture of different sentence structures reduces repetition and adds emphasis to important points in the text.

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In this extract from an election campaign, the writer uses short, simple sentences of a similar length and style. Notice that five of the seven sentences begin with the same word! This style that emphasizes repetition could be useful in the rhetorical context of a speech, but for a written text, the result is a choppy, unsophisticated paragraph that does not grab the audience’s attention.

During my time in office, I have achieved several goals. I have helped increase funding for local schools. I have reduced crime rates in the neighborhood. I have encouraged young people to get involved in their community. My competitor argues that she is the better choice in the upcoming election. I argue that it is ridiculous to fix something that isn’t broken. I promise to continue to serve this community if you reelect me this year.

Not just right and wrong

Style is not a matter of right and wrong but of what is appropriate for each rhetorical context—that is, each particular communication task, setting, and audience.

When you first draft an essay, the sentences may sound informal or similar to the way that you speak. This is perfectly acceptable for the drafting process and for certain kinds of informal writing and rhetorical contexts. It is important, however, to be sure that the style of your writing matches the rhetorical situation.

Consider these differences between conversational, spoken language, and more formal, academic language:

Spoken Language Written Language
Shorter sentences More complex sentences with varying structures
Vague words (e.g., stuff, some) Precise, careful word choices
Contractions, interjections, and slang
(e.g., can’t even, wow!, keep it 100)
Non-colloquial, standard word choice

Academic Style

Formal academic writing is concise and precise; the writer weeds out unnecessary words and chooses the exact word to convey meaning. Precise words—active verbs, concrete nouns, specific adjectives—help the reader visualize the sentence. In academic writing, we use adjectives sparingly and adverbs rarely, letting nouns and verbs do the work.

Follow these principles to be sure that your word choice is appropriate to an academic writing task:

  • Use a formal tone. Avoid slang. Find alternatives to lit, salty, lowkey, or any other contemporary terminology. Write about “men and women” rather than “girls and guys” unless you are trying to create a specific effect. A formal tone calls for formal language.
  • Avoid clichés. Overused expressions such as outside the box, back in the day, feeling blue, and similar expressions are empty of meaning and may not appeal to your audience.
  • Use specific words rather than overly general words. Find synonyms for vague words like thing, people, nice, good, bad, and interesting. Or, use specific details to make your exact meaning clear. Consider the following examples of things to avoid:

    Sentences that begin with There is or There are

    Wordy Revised
    There are two major experiments that the Biology Department sponsors. The Biology Department sponsors two major experiments.

    Sentences with unnecessary modifiers

    Wordy Revised
    Two extremely famous and well-known consumer advocates spoke eloquently in favor of the proposed important legislation. Two well-known consumer advocates spoke in favor of the proposed legislation.

    Sentences with unnecessary phrases that add little to the meaning

    Be judicious when you use phrases such as “in terms of,” “with a mind to,” “on the subject of,” “as to whether or not,” “more or less,” “as far as…is concerned,” and similar expressions. You can usually find a more straightforward way to state your point.

    Wordy Revised
    As a world leader in the field of green technology, the company plans to focus its efforts in the area of geothermal energy. A report as to whether or not to use geysers as an energy source is in the process of preparation. As a world leader in green technology, the company plans to focus on geothermal energy. A report about using geysers as an energy source is in preparation.

Choosing words that are sensitive to your audience

As you revise for style, look closely at the language you have used in your drafts. Often, we write words that are fairly common but might be offensive to some readers or make them feel like they are excluded from being valuable members of your audience. Revision is a chance to think carefully about your language choices and to make sure you are considering all potential readers.

Below are some examples of language choices that can help you be more inclusive in your writing:

Gender terms

Use gender-neutral pronouns when appropriate. For example, don’t use the word “he” unless you are referring to just a male. Use terms like “he or she” when singular or “their” when plural. In fact, one easy way to make language more inclusive is to pluralize when possible. For example, a sentence such as, “Any student wishing to go on the trip must turn in his money to the teacher by Friday,” could easily be changed to, “Students wishing to go on the trip must turn in their money to the teacher by Friday.” Unless you were writing about an all-boys school, the second sentence is a much better choice.

Here are some other examples:

  • police officer rather than policeman
  • mail carrier rather than mailman
  • humankind rather than mankind

Racial or ethnic terms

Use terms that are likely to not be offensive to readers. Despite common usage, some terms like “Indian” are not the preferred label for many members of that group. Additionally, it can be confusing because people from the country India can be called “Indian.” Use “Native American” or even “American Indian” instead.

Here are some other examples:

  • Latino/a or Latinx (or the appropriate specific ethnicity), rather than Mexican
  • African-American or Black rather than colored or other terms
  • Inuit or Native Alaskan rather than Eskimo
    Scrabble tiles spelling the word "keywords".

    Figure 1. Keep your audience in mind as you write, being careful to avoid words and phrases that might be offensive, exclusive, or beyond the scope of their knowledge.

Writing about disabilities

Terms referring to disabilities are often insensitive and sometimes even inaccurate. For example, the term “blind” has negative connotations. Think about how we also use it in negative ways: “Jill is blind to the fact that her old friends don’t want to hang out with her anymore.” Further, some people may be called blind when they actually have partial vision. The term “visually impaired” is a better choice for multiple reasons, even when someone has complete loss of sight.

Here are some other examples:

  • hearing impaired rather than deaf
  • mentally disabled or mentally ill; NOT retarded or crazy
  • person with disabilities or a person with a disability; NOT cripple or handicap

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