How Does This Sound? Why Writing Style Matters
by Nancy Vazquez
This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Fall 2010
When you read your students’ wriing, you’re considering many factors: did they do what the assignment asked? Did they get the information right? Does their argument make sense? Why can’t they learn the difference between “to” and “too”?
But one thing you may not be paying much attention to, at least consciously, is your students’ writing style: Do they express their ideas with grace and distinction, or do you cringe at their plodding or wordy constructions? Style can seem insignificant in the big picture of teaching writing, but there are reasons to give it more attention.
You might assume that students don’t care about style, but our experience at the writing center suggests most do. In consultations, they often say that their writing “doesn’t flow” or “just doesn’t sound right.” Such comments indicate that students believe academic writing should sound a certain way and fear their own work falls short. What they don’t know is how to improve.
While your students have probably had some previous instruction in grammar, most have had little, if any, instruction in style. The difference? Grammar instruction typically focuses on what’s right or wrong, whereas stylistic instruction concerns what’s effective or ineffective. Analyzing style can help demystify writing for students, showing them that, even though writing is a complex task, it can, in fact, be analyzed and understood.
There is, of course, no single “correct” or “good” writing style; writing that’s effective in one circumstance may fall flat in another, and different disciplines have different conventions. But while specific preferences vary, writing that’s clear and concise is valued in almost any context. Think of clear and concise writing as the verbal equivalent of the little black dress, appropriate in a wide range of settings.
The first step in helping your students gain control over their style is to make them aware of style in general. When you assign a reading, talk about how the article is written, along with what it says. You don’t need to be a grammar maven to consider the essentials: Are the sentences long or short? Does the author use first or third person? Is the vocabulary highly technical or accessible to a layperson? Where is the main idea articulated—at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? How does the author use transitions? Do any sentences seem particularly effective or ineffective?
Keep a file of examples of good and bad writing from your profession. Sharing bad examples with students can be especially useful, perhaps because they find it empowering to read professional writing and realize they could do better.
Have students suggest revisions for sloppy passages and discuss their changes. Remember, too, that writing is meant to be heard. Read sentences aloud and talk about their sound and rhythm. Professional writing doesn’t have to be poetry, but it should be pleasing to the ear, and the author’s tone should be confident.
Next, find a style guide you like and use it. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White has long been the premiere style guide, but many writers find it didactic, limited, and outdated. Those criticisms are warranted, but it’s still a well-written and insightful starting point.
Many UWC staffers like Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams, who presents twelve principles to make writing easier to understand. It’s a thoughtful book, albeit a little heavy on the grammatical terms. Others favor Revising Prose by Richard Lanham with its “paramedic” method for editing out the excess—what Lanham calls the “lard”—in your prose.
Or you could select a more comprehensive writing manual that also includes advice on style. For instance, faculty in technical fields might like Technical Communication by Mike Markel, which offers a thorough overview of tech writing, along with advice on improving sentences and paragraphs. A good choice for scientists is How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by Robert Day and Barbara Gastel, professor of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at Texas A&M.
Another useful resource is the UWC’s faculty blog, Stand and Deliver, where Executive Director Valerie Balester recently presented a series of posts on eliminating wordiness. She discusses how to eliminate long strings of prepositions and why you should avoid most nominalizations, which turn sprightly, useful verbs into pretentious, stodgy nouns. She also shares advice on revising expletives—those deadwood constructions such as “There is” and “It is.” The blog can be found on our website: uwc.tamu.edu.
Finally, emphasize to your students that last-minute writing is the enemy of clarity and brevity. Help them develop the habit of revision by requiring them to complete some form of pre-writing and submit drafts for major assignments. Remind them that even the best writers go through multiple revisions, and that the easier a piece is to read, the more effort it probably took to write.