Style and academic writing: joining those two terms could be seen, by some, as an oxymoron. That is, they aren't always thought of together, and for some people they are poles apart. But let's ignore that for the moment and concentrate on the two key terms here: style--what is it, and how do you identify it?--and academic writing--which to some extent requires a variety of writing styles.
In a recent podcast I gave some examples of how style has been defined:
None of these are wrong, but they aren't particularly helpful, either. Let's also consider what style is not:
Some of the component parts of a writing style include:
In another post I shared a document that helps identify these and other features of a written text and prompts you to identify those features either in your own writing or the writing of someone you are trying to emulate.
In the podcast and the slides you can see examples of the three levels of style that classical rhetoricians identified:
Ultimately, you'll want to develop your ability to write at each level, depending on your purpose. I'll examine each of those styles in future articles and podcasts.
Style in writing defies easy definition. That makes it hard to talk about, and harder to master. The ancient rhetoricians grouped style into three categories: the high or florid style (used to entertain, as in literature); the middle or forcible style (used in political discourse); and the plain or low style (suitable for instruction). In a previous article I gave an overview of the three styles; in this article and in a recent podcast episode I focus on the plain style.
First, let's clear up the confusion between style as linguistic element and style as cultural display. Plain style, because it is utilitarian and accessible by most, historically was associated with the lower classes in society. For our purposes, let's just ignore that association. The plain style, as it is used today, dominates communication. Speaking plainly and writing clearly matter across class boundaries.
Most workplace writing should be written in the plain style. But what is the plain style? Here are some characteristics:
How do you get to the point where you can start and finish writing projects efficiently? Many people who have attended my workshops ask that question or some variant of it. Those same people already know of the vast self-help literature on the topic: a search of an online bookseller will turn up pages of listings, many offering "tips" and activities guaranteed to turn readers into writers.
My experience teaching writing for 35 years and running workshops for both students and instructors tells me a different story. For a recent workshop and podcast, I decided to look at the problem of academics who are having trouble getting their writing done from a different perspective. I took as my jumping off point Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: 25 million readers couldn't be wrong, could they? I then combined his ideas with Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Finally, I added insights from research in writing studies about what kinds of knowledge writers need to have to succeed, drawn from Anne Beaufort's College Writing and Beyond.
Here are Covey's habits with my translations of them for writing in parentheses: