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Notes on Writing Style

The choices you make in an essay help to define its style—and yours.

Writing style is simply the way in which you write and is defined by the choices that you make when writing. These choices are often variations of syntax (sentence structure), diction (word choice), and description (what details are available to the reader and how you present them), that when brought together uniquely by the writer reveal a specific personality or voice.

Two primary elements that influence a writer’s style are audience and intent. When a writer considers their audience they are stylizing writing to the demographic or type of people that will most likely encounter their work.

For example a novelist, such as J.K. Rowling, that has an audience of mainly young adults is going to take into consideration what level of violence or profanity is acceptable for that group to read and will most likely write accordingly to those boundaries.
Another example would be a student that is composing a letter of intent to accompany an application for a grant. The letter is a formal document that will be read by an academic party, so it is important that the student write in a style that is free of informal language and exhibits proper use of syntax.

Intent is often a precursor to genre and is the writer’s purpose for writing. Some intentions for writing include: to entertain, to persuade, to inform, and to describe.

Diction: the wide world of word choice.

 

For most academic writing fairly formal language is appropriate. However, we are composing an essay that is open form, so there are many more avenues of language available to you. Some examples of language accepted in open form writing, but not in closed form, are colloquialisms, idioms, jargon, and slang.
A colloquialism is a word or phrase that would be used in conversation, but not necessarily in writing. Although, colloquialisms are quickly becoming a part of our every day writing through informal communication via texts, emails, chat boards, and social networking. Colloquialisms also tend to reflect a specific region and imitate that region’s style of talking.

Examples of colloquialisms: wanna, gonna, ain’t, pop (in reference to soft drinks), joe (as in a cigarette), Yonder (meaning, “over there”), where’yat? (where are you?/how are you?).

Idioms are common words or phrases with culturally understood meanings that differ from what the word’s denotation would suggest. For example, an English speaker would understand the phrase “kick the bucket” to mean “to die” – as well as to actually kick a bucket. Furthermore, they would understand when each meaning is being used in context. however, someone that does not speak English may not be aware of the contextual duality of the word and therefore may miss the connotation of the phrase.

Some common idioms are: “open up a can of worms”,  “give the cold shoulder”, “hit the road”, “break a leg”, “take a hike”,  “blood is thicker than water”.

Jargon refers to language or phrases used by a specific profession or group that is difficult for others to understand. An example of this may be a carpenter’s use of the terms coffin key, circle square, spectra loop, and Klein tool. For someone outside of the carpentry profession these terms mean little to nothing, but to another carpenter they are specific and noteworthy names for the tools necessary to their work.

Slang is an informal use of language that almost everyone participates in verbally. Like colloquialisms, slang can often be a hint as to what region or group a person is from as it is often used to emphasize the closeness of a group by connecting a word’s definition closely with the context in which the word is being used.

An example of this is Cockney Rhyming Slang, seen here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goXMgFJTi1s

Informal language may enliven an argument, add personality to an essay, or form strong connections with specific audiences, but it can also can bewilder and isolate readers if your meaning is only accessible to a certain group. It is important to weigh the capabilities of the language that you choose by examining what phrases or informal diction are serving a purpose in your writing, and which may be unnecessarily complicating it. The ringmaster of this negotiation is more often than not the all mighty connotation vs denotation.

Connotation is the implied definition of a word or phase and denotation is the literal meaning.

Controlling the connotation of words and phrases in your writing style is something to consider, as it is what forms the associations that surround your intent. Keep in mind that although a word’s denotation may be appropriate to your claim, its connotation could throw off what you are arguing completely.

Examples of words that are formally defined as the same but have different connotations are:

skinny/thin/fit
childish/youthful/innocent
idiot/fool/asinine
ambitious/earnest/resourceful
raunchy/careless/unsatisfactory
elated/perky/upbeat

 

Effective writing through strong description.

Concrete, specific language is more effective than abstract, general information.

 

Concrete language “shows” the reader rather than “tells” them. Concrete language is specific and cannot be argued with. some examples are: “climb”, “swim”, “rusty”, and “eyebrow”. Because these words express physicality (things we can see, touch, taste or feel) they are more effective in relating an idea to readers.
Abstract language is non-specific and often vague or open to interpretation. Words like “courage”, “confusion”, and “happiness” are abstract because they can mean different things to everyone. Abstract language expresses ideas, concepts and beliefs that do not always translate equally to every reader.

 

Instead of writing “This is a bad fix to the problem.” which is abstract and general because it relies on a reader’s interpretation you may try saying, “Creating a gender divide in the workplace is a counteractive solution to bridging the gap between men and women in the professional world.”

 

Another example may be: “He is a bad roommate.” This is vague and abstract because the idea of what constitutes a “bad roommate” may vary from person to person. When we elaborate and change the sentence to, “John leaves his dirty underwear on the floor and eats all of my food.” It is understood that these qualities are undesirable.

 

According to John Gardner, “If a writer says “creatures” instead of “snakes”, if in attempt to impress us with fancy talk he used Latinate terms like ‘hostile maneuvers’ instead of sharp words like ‘thrash, ‘coil’, ‘spit’, ‘hiss’, and ‘writhe’, if instead of the desert sands and rocks he speaks of ‘the snake’s inhospitable abode,’ the reader will hardly know what picture to conjure up.”

 

Syntax: the landscape of your writing.

 

Syntax is the arrangement of words or phrases in a sentence. At the a sentence level this is often defined by the writer’s use of grammar (which can be inverted or nontraditional in creative writing) and when looking at an essay or work as a whole it is defined by the sentence variety that can be found throughout. Syntax is the rhythm of your writing.

 

Varying sentence structure and style can help reduce repetitiveness that often lulls writing into a monotonous, disengaging tone. Often writers have the tendency to draft initially in either short, choppy sentences or long, run-on sentences. This is fine while you are drafting as it allows ideas and information to flow and develop naturally without constraint, but it is important to revise these sentences once you have developed your first draft.

 

For short, choppy sentences attempt to combine them with conjunctions like: and, but, or, nor, yet, for, so.

ex) Taco Bell carries several frozen drinks or “frutistas”. Almost all of them include the flavor strawberry. Most have a strawberry topping too.

Taco Bell carries several frozen drinks called “frutistas” that typically include the flavor strawberry and may also be topped with like preserves or syrup.

 

For run-ons you must correct the sentence by providing appropriate punctuation or conjunctions. Do this by joining two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) and use a comma before the connecting word.

She enjoys walking along the levee, and she often splashes in the water.

When you do not have a connection word (or when you use a connecting word other than and, but, (etc…) use a semicolon.

He often painted triptychs when there were serious political movements in action; however, this piece is about the seldom-reported serenity and cohesion of the republic.

 

Sentence types:

Simple: A simple sentence has one independent clause and no dependant clause.
“My dog was excited to go for a walk.”

 

Compound sentences have multiple independent clauses but no dependant clauses.
“The squirrel frightened my Yorkie and she ran behind my legs.”

 

Complex sentences have one independent clause and at least one dependant clause.
“After the squirrel returned to its branch, it began to pitch acorns at us.”

 

Complex-compound sentences have multiple independent clauses with at least one independent clause.
“Red squirrels are regarded as an uncommonly aggressive variety of tree rodents, and because they have adapted so well to urban settings, which include public parks, they have become quite the nuisance to humans and domesticated animals alike.”

 

Remember to be aware of what you can handle syntactically–it is understood that young writers are not expected to achieve syntactical feats that established writers are able to. If you can say something simply and effectively, then do so. Do not waste your time weaving a web of syntax that is unnecessary or dense when a more direct route will do.

 

An example of the type of syntax that may be too much to take on at this point is William Faulkner’s 157 word sentence from  Absalom, Absalom!:
“There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfeild in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the binding and dreamy and victorious dust.”

 

The longest sentence in the world is a 4,391 word sentence in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

 

Another thing to pay attention to when looking at syntax are sentence openings. If too many sentences begin with the same word, especially the, it, this, or I, prose can grow tedious for readers. Changing opening words and phrases is refreshing and stops your work from becoming predictable or boring.

 

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About Ms. Ruffino

Hello students, I'm very excited for the semester with hopes that this blog will keep everyone organized and on task! If you have any questions or concerns stop by my office (Faner 2238) or let me know via email.

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