Style is the way in which something is written, as opposed to the meaning of what is written. In writing, however, the two are very closely linked. As the package for the meaning of the text, style influences the reader’s impression of the information itself. Style includes diction and tone. The main goal in considering style is to present your information in a manner appropriate for both the audience and the purpose of the writing. Consistency is vital. Switching styles can distract the reader and diminish the believability of the paper’s argument.
Diction is word choice. When writing, use vocabulary suited for the type of assignment. Words that have almost the same denotation (dictionary meaning) can have very different connotations (implied meanings).
|Formal Diction||Casual Diction||Slang (very informal)|
|are not angry||aren't mad||ain't ticked|
Besides the level of formality, also consider positive or negative connotations of the words chosen.
|pruning the bushes||slashing at the bushes|
|the politician's stance||the politician's spin|
Some types of diction are almost never advisable in writing. Avoid clichés, vagueness (language that has more than one equally probable meaning), wordiness, and unnecessarily complex language.
Aside from individual word choice, the overall tone, or attitude, of a piece of writing should be appropriate to the audience and purpose. The tone may be objective or subjective, logical or emotional, intimate or distant, serious or humorous. It can consist mostly of long, intricate sentences, of short, simple ones, or of something in between. (Good writers frequently vary the length of their sentences.)
One way to achieve proper tone is to imagine a situation in which to say the words being written. A journal might be like a conversation with a close friend where there is the freedom to use slang or other casual forms of speech. A column for a newspaper may be more like a high-school graduation speech: it can be more formal, but it can still be funny or familiar. An academic paper is like a formal speech at a conference: being interesting is desirable, but there is no room for personal digressions or familiar usage of slang words.
In all of these cases, there is some freedom of self-expression while adapting to the audience. In the same way, writing should change to suit the occasion.
Tone vs. Voice
Anything you write should still have your voice: something that makes your writing sound uniquely like you. A personal conversation with a friend differs from a speech given to a large group of strangers. Just as you speak to different people in different ways yet remain yourself, so the tone of your writing can vary with the situation while the voice -- the essential, individual thoughts and expression -- is still your own.
“Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.”
- Miles Davis
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”
- Artur Schnabel (1882–1951), German-born U.S. pianist.
These two musicians expressed the same thought in their own unique voices.
Reference: Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed., Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
Copyright © 2009 Wheaton College Writing Center