illustration of boy writing

The five features of effective writing

By Kathleen Cali and Kim Bowen

A writer’s style is what sets his or her writing apart and makes it unique. Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, or audience. Word choice, sentence fluency, 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 is also an element of style. 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 usually considered to be the province of literary writers. 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 have distinctive styles, and they need to know how to vary their styles to fit different audiences. For example, the first-person narrative style of a popular magazine like National Geographic is quite different from the objective, third-person expository style of a research journal like Scientific American, even though both are written for informational purposes.

Not just right and wrong

Style is not a matter of right and wrong but of what is appropriate for a particular 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 the 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.

Word choice

Good writers are concise and precise, weeding out unnecessary words and choosing the exact word to convey meaning. Precise words — active verbs, concrete nouns, specific adjectives — help the reader visualize the sentence. Good writers use adjectives sparingly and adverbs rarely, letting their nouns and verbs do the work.

Good writers also choose words that contribute to the flow of a sentence. Polysyllabic words, alliteration, and consonance can be used to create sentences that roll off the tongue. Onomatopoeia and short, staccato words can be used to break up the rhythm of a sentence.

Sentence fluency

Sentence fluency is the flow and rhythm of phrases and sentences. Good 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.

Good writers also arrange their ideas within a sentence for greatest effect. They avoid loose sentences, deleting extraneous words and rearranging their ideas for effect. Many students initially write with a looser oral style, adding words on to the end of a sentence in the order they come to mind. This rambling style is often described as a “word dump” where everything in a student’s mind is dumped onto the paper in no particular order. There is nothing wrong with a word dump as a starting point: the advantage of writing over speaking is that writers can return to their words, rethink them, and revise them for effect. Tighter, more readable style results when writers choose their words carefully, delete redundancies, make vague words more specific, and use subordinate clauses and phrases to rearrange their ideas for the greatest effect.

Voice

Because voice is difficult to measure reliably, it is often left out of scoring formulas for writing tests. Yet 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.

Teaching style

Read-alouds

The best way to teach students about style is to have them listen. Listening to good writing read aloud will help students develop an ear for different styles. The best writers have a distinctive style that readers can most appreciate when they hear it aloud rather than reading it silently. As students develop their ear for different styles, they can compare the styles of different authors in the same genre, examine how writers change their styles for different audiences, and consider which styles are most effective for different audiences, genres, and contexts. Read-alouds of picturebooks, poetry, and plays help students develop an ear for language that they can transfer to their writing.

When you read aloud in class, have students think of the reading as a performance. Many an ear for language has been deadened by that dreaded classroom affliction — round-robin reading. The worst way to teach students about style is to have them read aloud with no rehearsal. A writer’s style is lost when students stumble and stutter over unfamiliar words. Instead, reading aloud should include activities such as reader’s theater, choral reading of refrains, and echo reading that give students the opportunity to rehearse the writer’s style and cadence before reading to an audience. Reading aloud for an audience also helps students become aware of the effect of word choice, sentence structure, and voice on that audience.

Memorization

Although memorizing and reciting poems, folktales, speeches, sermons, soliloquies, and songs may seem archaic, memorization helps students internalize different oratorical and poetic styles. Teaching students oratorical and storytelling techniques can help them think about how words and sentence structures are used for dramatic effect. Even memorizing a joke helps students think about style.

Writing in different voices

Differences in characters’ personalities — their styles — are often revealed through the words they speak. Younger students can practice assuming different voices: angry, sad, whiny, excited, scared, dreamy. What words would they use? What would the words sound like? Would their sentences be long or short? Older students often have difficulty moving away from a chatty, conversational voice to the more authoritative voice of expository writing genres; practice with an emphasis on voice will help.

Finding livelier words

Elementary students should learn to use a thesaurus. Have them make word collections of strong verbs, concrete nouns, and precise adjectives and adverbs. Ask them to identify vague, generic words in their own writing and brainstorm livelier alternatives.

Older students can learn to envision themselves in the setting they are describing and brainstorm words that concisely convey vital elements of that setting. As Partricia O’Connor writes, “If you ride, think of a horse’s gait: walk, trot, canter, gallop. If you’re musical, use your toe or an imaginary baton to mark the tempo: adagio, andante, allegro, presto. Think of an oncoming train, the waves of the sea, wheels on a cobblestone street.”

Sentence combining

One of the most effective methods for helping students develop sentence fluency is sentence combining. In sentence combining activities, students combine short sentences into fluid passages. Sentence combining helps students move away from the short, choppy simple sentences of beginning writers toward longer, more complex sentences. These activities can also help students learn to tighten up their sentences and to rearrange them to achieve different effects. Strong (2001) uses sentence-combining activities to study the stylistic choices that professional writers make.

References

Ray, Katie Wood. (1999). Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Strong, William. (2001). Coaching Writing: The Power of Guided Practice. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Strunk, William, and White, E. B. (2000). The Elements of Style (4th Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Zinsser, William. (2001). On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction. (6th edition). New York: Harper-Collins.