The final stage of revising is often focused solely on “correctness”: making sure that all the details are right, and that language is used according to the rules. However, revision stage 3 also offers a great opportunity to focus on your style, and allows you to craft the final product that best represents your unique perspective. Note that conscious work with style may help create more sophisticated writing.
A writer’s style is what sets his or her writing apart. Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, content, and audience. Word choice, sentence structure, and the writer’s voice all contribute to the style of a piece of writing. How a writer chooses words and structures sentences to achieve a certain effect creates a certain style in the writing. When Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he arranged his words to convey a sense of urgency and desperation. Had he written “These are bad times,” it’s likely he wouldn’t have made such an impact.
Style is often considered and discussed within the context of literature. Novelists such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and poets such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are well known for their distinctive literary styles. But journalists, scientists, historians, and mathematicians also may have distinctive writing styles. Style depends on both the writer and the context of the writing (the purpose and intended audience). For example, the first-person narrative style of a popular magazine such as National Geographic is quite different from the objective, third-person, expository style of a research journal such as Scientific American because, although the purpose of each publication is to inform, they are informing different audiences in different contexts.
Not just right and wrong
Style is not a matter of right and wrong but of what is appropriate for a particular purpose, setting, and audience. Consider the following two passages, which were written by the same author on the same topic with the same main idea, yet have very different styles:
“Experiments show that Heliconius butterflies are less likely to ovipost on host plants that possess eggs or egg-like structures. These egg mimics are an unambiguous example of a plant trait evolved in response to a host-restricted group of insect herbivores.”
“Heliconius butterflies lay their eggs on Passiflora vines. In defense the vines seem to have evolved fake eggs that make it look to the butterflies as if eggs have already been laid on them.” (Example from Myers, G. (1992). Writing biology: Texts in the social construction of scientific knowledge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 150.)
What changed was the audience. The first passage was written for a professional journal read by other biologists, so the style is authoritative and impersonal, using technical terminology suited to a professional audience. The second passage, written for a popular science magazine, uses a more dramatic style, setting up a conflict between the butterflies and the vines, and using familiar words to help readers from non-scientific backgrounds visualize the scientific concept being described. Each style is appropriate for its particular audience.
Elements of style
Many elements of writing contribute to an author’s style, but three of the most important are word choice, sentence fluency, and voice.
Most writers strive to be concise and precise, weeding out unnecessary words and choosing the exact word to convey meaning. Precise words—active verbs, concrete nouns, specific adjectives—help readers visualize abstract concepts in a sentence. No matter what style is appropriate, formal or informal, serious or humorous, clarity and precision are goals to strive for in terms of style.
When you consider word choice, ask yourself if your words convey your main ideas clearly, and if you are you using language that can be understood by your reading audience (most likely an adult, general audience, such as people who read blogs and newspapers).
After you revise for clarity and precision of language, also look at the tone that your words create. Are you intentionally informal, formal, humorous, straightforward? Is your tone appropriate for the context of your writing: your purpose and audience? Are there breeches in tone that are jarring, such as very informal or slang phrases in what is otherwise a piece of writing with a straightforward, professional tone?
Also consider enlivening your word choice. Not every word in an essay can be a “special” word, nor should it be. But if your writing in an area feels a little flat, the injection of a livelier word can have strong rhetorical and emotional impact on your reader. Think of these words as jewels in the right setting. Often swapping out “to be” verbs (e.g., is, was, were, etc.) with more action-packed verbs has immediate, positive impact. Also look for words such as “things,” “very,” or “many,” which you can replace with more precise terminology.
Sentence fluency is the flow and rhythm of phrases and sentences. Writers use a variety of sentences with different lengths and rhythms to achieve different effects. They use parallel structures within sentences and paragraphs to reflect parallel ideas, but also know how to avoid monotony by varying their sentence structures. For example, a writer may consciously use a very short sentence in a paragraph to emphasize and draw attention to a particular idea.
When you revise for sentence fluency, consider the patterns of your sentences. Are they all direct subject-verb statements? Or are the sentences varied in pattern? Sentence length variety is an asset to your readers, as it helps maintain their interest. If you find a paragraph or two of your essay that uses many sentences of approximately the same length close together, work in those paragraphs on combining some short sentences or on breaking some long sentences apart.
Also ask yourself if any sentences are wordy, using too many words and phrases in places where much shorter phrases can be used? (e.g., phrases such as “concerning the matter of,” “the reason for,” and “it is a fact that,” or too many “of” or “to” phrases). There is nothing wrong with using repetitive sentence patterns or too many words a starting point in a draft; the advantage of writing over speaking is that you can return to your sentences and words, rethink them, and revise them for more concise and precise style.
Voice is an essential element of style that reveals the writer’s personality. A writer’s voice can be impersonal or chatty, authoritative or reflective, objective or passionate, serious or funny. As you consider style when you revise, identify an adjective that you think best describes your voice, and ask yourself if this is appropriate for your writing context, purpose, and audience.
How can you consider style consciously?
One method is to read an essay draft out loud, preferably to another person. Better yet, have another person read your draft to you. Note how that person interprets your words. Do they come across as you originally meant them to? If not, revise.
Another method is to simply ignore your essay draft for a few days, and then read it carefully as though you were reading another writer’s work for the first time. Planning some time between drafting and revising helps with all stages of the revising process, including style.