26 It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Style as a Series of Choices
What you have to say matters. Writing is all about communicating your ideas, argument, or perspective with others. When we talk about thesis statements, supporting arguments, evidence, exigency, and more—that’s all about what you say.
In this chapter, though, we are going to shift away from what you have to say to how you say it. Style is something that many writers develop on their own over time, but giving language to the different elements of style—as we will do in this chapter—can help us better recognize and understand what works for us and why.
How to Decide
Purpose, Audience, Context
Over the course of your day as a college student, you might write a lab report, a personal essay, an email to a professor, and a bunch of texts to your roommate. As a writer, you know instinctively that these different categories (or genres) of writing require different approaches. The content is varied, yes, but how you write is also distinct in each case.
A lab report is objective, is fact based, and often uses passive voice with no “I”; its sentences may be short, clear, and direct. A personal narrative, on the other hand, almost certainly uses an active “I” voice and potentially more adjectives and sensory language. Your personal style might lead you to longer sentences in that context, even experimenting with semicolons or em dashes.
You can imagine similar (or even more pronounced) differences between an email to a professor and a text to your roommate. How does your voice or style change between the two contexts? How do you adapt your vocabulary, formality, punctuation, and more to fit each situation? What’s the problem with sending an email filled with emojis and no caps to your professor? They might get your meaning, but an email like that might also (perhaps unfairly) reduce your credibility with that particular audience. When we think about how to write something, the most important thing to consider is who will read it and why. In other words, read the room, people.
And that brings us to an important point: how you write or speak in your community might be very different from the expectations of academic writing. This extends beyond just emojis; depending on your family and history, you may use a different system of grammar, syntax, and dialect than what is sometimes called “standard” English. That’s OK! We don’t want to change who you are or how you speak with your family or friends.
Some have even argued that the academic insistence on standardized English is racist and socially unjust. For example, Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young argues that the college writing classroom’s focus on standardized English reveals a prejudice against Black and other nonwhite dialects and privileges white language practices (110–111). Dr. Asao Inoue argues that traditional writing assessment (which emphasizes “correctness”) ignores students’ experiences and leads to a racist writing classroom with inequitable outcomes (52–53). For these reasons—among others—there is a move within rhetoric and composition classrooms to more widely embrace a variety of student dialects rather than insisting on one single mode of writing and speaking.
That said, though, writing is a series of choices—often impacted by audience and purpose—and those choices can impact the effectiveness of your message. The goal of this chapter is to help you identify the places in your writing where you can make a choice—more or less formal, longer or shorter sentences, dialect or standardized English (or a blend)—to communicate your ideas in a particular context. Choices like this can make your writing clearer and more rhetorically effective.
We make these stylistic changes not to hide who we are but because the purpose, audience, and context of each writing task are different. It is true, though, that some people feel like they have to hide their voice more than others in order to “fit” in college writing. The question of how to honor a diversity of voices and experiences—while still acknowledging that standardized English or academic writing is the expectation in many settings—is a significant challenge and conversation in college writing classrooms.
Our goal is to be rhetorically effective in our writing, and our strategies may vary based on the particular rhetorical situation in which we find ourselves. As writers, it is a powerful tool to be able to move back and forth between stylistic modes and communication styles—the better to reach our readers.
The following elements of style (in alphabetical order) are just some of the areas where you can make these writerly choices.
Concision is the opposite of wordiness. Concise writing is tight and bright; it is clear and content-rich. In other words, it contains no additional fluff or unnecessary words.
Why is fluff a problem, at a sentence or paragraph level? Why does this matter, do you think?
In the worst cases, wordiness leads to whole paragraphs of fluff and repetition. Sometimes this happens when students are asked to meet a page-length requirement for an assignment. “How can I possibly write five to six pages about the Endangered Species Act?” you may wonder. That’s a great question and one you could work on with your instructor—but the answer should ultimately boil down to better content, not fluff paragraphs. (A few ideas: add a counterargument, bring in another source, give an example, ask a more complex question, etc.)
In most writing, though, wordiness happens unconsciously. The kinds of extra words that we add in conversation can make a written sentence confusing and less impactful. Because writing is a more crafted form of communication, we can take the time to edit ourselves and remove the fluff for a stronger final product.
Consider the following examples:
Wordy: The author of this article, Dr. Belinda Jackson, who is a psychologist and researches cognition, makes the argument that metacognition is very helpful for student learning.
Concise: Cognitive psychologist Dr. Belinda Jackson argues that metacognition improves student learning.
Notice that the content of the sentence didn’t change. Concision is not about simplifying your ideas or removing important details. Instead, the goal is to remove unnecessary words that dilute or confuse the sentence. A more concise sentence is easier to understand and therefore makes a stronger impact. In fact, it leaves room for more content: a concise writer can pack an incredible amount of information and ideas into a paragraph.
Conciseness is an ongoing exercise for all writers. Here are a few tips to make your writing more concise:
- Remove unnecessary repetition. For example, a “slow, unhurried, leisurely stroll” could be rewritten as simply “a leisurely stroll.”
- Remove empty modifiers—adjectives and adverbs that don’t significantly contribute to the meaning of the sentence and are used only to intensify the word they are modifying. The most common ones are very, really, pretty, totally, and just.
- Use an active voice when it makes sense to do so. More on this in the “Passive and Active Voice” section below.
- Combine sentences to avoid repetition. For example, this version is wordy: “I went to the store. The store was Winco. They were closed.” A more concise version would be “I went to Winco, but they were closed.” Notice that concise writing does not always mean short, simple sentences.
As Strunk and White put it in their famous book The Elements of Style,
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (46)
That’s a high bar but something to aspire to as you work to make your writing concise and content-rich.
Many writers feel concerned about “grammar” (I used quote marks here because often what they really mean is clarity, syntax, punctuation, or even spelling—any kind of English usage or mechanics). Often, these writers have been told that their writing contains errors or that it’s difficult to understand. This can happen for many reasons. Knowledge of mechanics and English usage comes from a combination of the language or dialect you spoke growing up, the way you process language, your exposure to written language, and more.
This anxiety can be exacerbated by encounters with “grammar Nazis”—people who take it upon themselves to get out their (literal or figurative) red pen and tell you (and the world) exactly what you’ve done wrong. You may have a grammar stickler in your own life, and the internet is certainly full of them. We’ve all seen the correction *you’re as a saucy retort to haters in the comments section (one of the most satisfying and, it has to be said, pedantic responses out there).
The internet itself—and all digital communication—is a great example of how language and English usage are constantly in flux. How often do you see a period at the end of a text message—and if you do, what did you do to make the writer angry? How long has the phrase “because internet” been considered a complete thought? Internet linguistics is fascinating in its own right, but I bring it up here as an example of a larger point: grammar is made up. Yes, there are some stylistic and usage choices that make our meaning clearer and more graceful, but some rules are arbitrary and were invented by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammarians. (“Never end a sentence with a preposition,” I’m looking at you—an arbitrary rule if I ever heard one.)
There is something to be said for correctness. Errors can distract readers from ideas or make meaning murky, and it is true that others may judge us (again, unfairly) for errors and typos in our emails. (Interestingly, one study suggests that the people most bothered by these kinds of errors are not united by age, education, or time spent reading; instead, their commonality is personality type. Extroverts are more willing to overlook written errors that introverted people may judge negatively [Boland and Queen].)
In the field of rhetoric and composition, though, we have moved away from a heavy emphasis on correct usage in the past few years. While there is value in correctness, the most important thing is for your meaning to be clear and your ideas to be sound. Too much focus on where the apostrophe goes can detract from the larger issues of how to build an argument, support a stance, or structure an essay. We need to work on those global aspects of writing before getting down to the nitty-gritty of comma usage. As Stephen Pinker put it,
For all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style and overcoming the curse of knowledge, to say nothing of standards of intellectual conscientiousness. If you really want to improve the quality of your writing, or if you want to thunder about sins in the writing of others, the principles you should worry about the most are not the ones that govern fused participles and possessive antecedents but the ones that govern critical thinking and factual diligence. (485)
In other words, grammar and usage are only a small part of the larger writing picture. Your instructor may note patterns of error or point out places where a comma would make your writing clearer—but it will not be the primary focus of most college writing classes.
However, when you leave school, it will be up to you to judge the rhetorical situation of any piece of writing and handle correctness accordingly. You already know this subconsciously; just think again about the example of texting a friend versus emailing an instructor.
English usage and mechanics are another way to make your writing more effective, powerful, and clear. Think of them as tools to help you strengthen the rhetorical impact of your words and ideas. How can you use these tools to clarify your meaning and help your readers focus on the good stuff?
See the “Additional Resources” and “Activities” sections for more practical and specific guidance on comma usage and more.
Passive and Active Voice
Maybe this is a familiar phrase: “Ugh, he’s so passive! Why won’t he speak up for himself?” When we describe a person as passive, we mean that they let things happen to them. They don’t take action; instead, they allow things to happen without resistance.
That definition is helpful when learning about passive voice in writing as well. In passive voice, the object (or recipient) of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. In other words, the focus is on who (or what) received the action rather than on who (or what) completed the action. Here’s an example to show you what I mean:
Passive: The coffee was drunk by Poppy.
Active: Poppy drank the coffee.
Both of these sentences are grammatically correct, but as you can see, they have some notable differences. The passive construction is a little longer, and it emphasizes the coffee (the recipient of the action) rather than Poppy (the doer of the action). The active version is more concise, and it focuses on Poppy and her actions.
These may seem like small differences, but they add up over the course of a paper. Active voice is often considered sharper, clearer, and cleaner than passive voice. In the example above, you can see why.
So why would anyone ever use passive voice? Well, in some cases, the doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant, as in “The package was delivered this morning” (passive). We don’t know who delivered it, and while the delivery person matters as a human, they don’t matter in the meaning of this sentence.
In other cases, the receiver of the action is more important than the doer; we emphasize the recipient of the action because that’s what matters in the context of the sentence. For example, we almost always say, “She was born in 1994,” which is a passive construction. In this situation, who did the action (her mother) is not the most relevant information. If we wrote, “Her mother gave birth to her in 1994” (active voice), we would be making a conscious decision to highlight her mother’s role in the moment.
This is often true in technical and scientific writing as well, which is why the passive voice is more common in STEM fields. In a lab report, for example, the experiment is more important than the researcher; for that reason, it’s common to write in the passive voice. For example, “Hydrochloric acid was then added” (passive) is more common than “I added hydrochloric acid.”
We also often use passive voice to avoid blaming others in a negative situation. In some cases, this is considered the most polite route. It may feel accusatory or aggressive to say, “You did this assignment incorrectly” (active). Instead, we might say, “This assignment was done incorrectly.” Again, both are correct, but we can make a writerly choice here to focus on the receiver of the action (the assignment) and in this case spare someone’s feelings.
However, be careful! The passive voice is sometimes used in this way to avoid taking responsibility. Newspapers famously use passive voice in a way that emphasizes the victims rather than the criminals. Politicians, corporations, and regular people also use the passive voice to duck blame or responsibility. Consider the following examples:
Passive: She was assaulted at a party.
Active: An unknown male assaulted her at a party.
Passive: Authors of color have been historically marginalized by the publishing industry.
Active: Historically, the publishing industry marginalized authors of color.
Passive: Mistakes were made.
Active: We made a mistake. (Or even more unthinkable: I made a mistake.)
How does the active voice shift the focus of the sentence and potentially the cultural framing of sexual assault, racism, and other errors? You can see how the use of active or passive voice can be a political choice as well as a stylistic one.
Passive voice isn’t grammatically incorrect, and it has its place. The key (as with all elements of style) is to consider how its use impacts your writing. Notice it and make a choice about when to use it and when to cut it.
You can check your own writing for passive voice. Does the “doer” of the action come after the action (the thing that was done)? Or does the doer disappear completely? If so, the sentence is likely in a passive voice. You can also look for this construction in your sentences:
“to be” verb (is, are, was, etc.) + past participle (walked, taken, seen, etc.) = passive voice
Point of View: To “I” or Not to “I”
As a general rule, an “I” voice will give your writing a more personal and subjective feel. That’s why a first-person perspective is common in memoirs and personal essays but rarely seen in STEM fields (although some scientific articles do refer to the researchers as “we,” which is a personal pronoun but somehow slightly less intimate than “I”). Academic writing in the humanities and social sciences is somewhere in between these two extremes—depending on the subject and context, a writer can make their own choice. Many well-known scholars in these fields use an “I” in their academic papers, especially if their connection to the subject is important to understanding their perspective or point. Some authors use it just a little bit—maybe they open their article with a personal anecdote before moving into a more objective tone—while others use it throughout a piece of writing.
It’s worth noting that although writing without the “I” can be read as more objective, all writing is created by people with perspectives and stances. If I make an argument, it doesn’t matter if I frame it with “I argue” or not; it’s still my argument. From one perspective, then, using an “I” voice is simply more transparent about the subjectivity of the work.
The “I” voice is slightly less formal, although it can still have a place in academic writing. It can also feel quite personal, depending on the subject. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
While I recognize the potential value of a longer school day in improving test scores, I don’t agree that the benefits are worth the cost.
While a longer school day may improve test scores, the benefits aren’t worth the cost.
How would you describe the difference between these two? You can see how even minor changes like this have an impact on how they “sound” to the reader’s ear.
The word syntax comes originally from ancient Greek: sun (arrange) and tassein (together) became the Greek word suntaxis. The syntax of a sentence is how it’s arranged or how the words are put together. This isn’t just a question of correctness; the structure or order of a sentence affects how it strikes its audience.
Consider a widespread example from the well-known style guide by Strunk and White. Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” How do these rewrites change the impact of the message?
- Times like these try men’s souls.
- How trying it is to live in these times!
- These are trying times for men’s souls.
- Soulwise, these are trying times.
As you can see, sentences gain or lose power depending on how they’re structured. Longer sentences can seem more formal, but shorter sentences can be more direct and impactful in their own way. Sentences can be combined using semicolons, em dashes, and more; each method will have a slightly different “feel.”
This can be a fun thing to play around with! Experiment with your own writing by rewriting one sentence in three ways. Which one do you like most?
When you were a kid, you may have heard a grown-up say, “Don’t use that tone with me!” As a parent myself, I have to admit that I have said these words more than I ever imagined I would. When someone says this, they are usually hearing something in your tone—the attitude of your voice—that they don’t like. In other words, the way you speak conveys your attitude toward the listener or the situation.
The same is true in writing. Tone is the author’s attitude toward their subject or their audience. It might be humorous, sarcastic, intimate, distanced, light, serious, warm, cold, subjective, objective, gloomy, cheerful, formal, informal, or something else. This tone comes from word choice (diction), point of view, sentence structure (syntax), and even punctuation.
The level of formality in your writing is one important element of tone. This is one of the most obvious differences between a text message and an email to your professor, as we considered above. Academic writing tends to be somewhat formal, although it should still be clear and understandable.
Formality is determined by word choice (diction) and sentence structure (syntax). In English, there are often many phrases and words that mean the same thing, but they have different connotations—including their level of formality. Consider the following:
The research team will look into these issues.
The research team will investigate these issues.
Which is more formal? As you can see, word choice has a big impact. Try it for yourself. Can you come up with a more formal substitution for the following phrases?
- Come around
- Do tests
- Fit in
- Futz around
- Make of (as in “What do you make of it?”)
- Pin down
- Stick to my position
- Read up on
- Turn up
- Work with
Again, the goal here isn’t to change who you are or how you speak. It’s about fitting into the genre expectations of whatever you’re writing, knowing that your ideas can be more effectively communicated if you adapt to the audience and context. In academic writing, this means making your word choice a bit more formal.
The reverse is also true: your friends might roll their eyes if you started texting them with formal academic language! How would you adapt these phrases into a more conversational style?
Three more simple ways to adjust the level of formality in your writing:
- Contractions (can’t, don’t, it’s) are an informal move. You can remove them to make your writing more formal. However, this is not a strict rule! It’s a choice that you can make as a writer: How formal do you want to be? Are there times, even in academic writing, where a contraction flows better?
- Some common transition phrases are inherently formal. Have you ever heard someone say “while this may be the case” or “therefore” in casual conversation?! Only if you have very fancy friends. You can add these to boost your formality or cut them to make your writing more approachable and relatable.
- Exclamation points are also informal. Again, they’re not forbidden in academic writing—but they are infrequent. Use them only with intention and care to highlight an important point.
Imagine you’re sitting around with your friends, debating the qualities of a recent Netflix series. Even though you’re all talking about the same thing, the way you say things is different: the resonance of your actual voice, of course, but also your word choice, accent, speed, and more.
This is true in writing too. In any piece of writing, you can include some of your personal “voice” in the piece. Letting yourself shine through often makes a paper more interesting and engaging to read! Voice is the part of your writing that is unique to you as a writer; it’s like your fingerprint (or, well, your voice). It comes from word choice, syntax, punctuation, and point of view.
Voice is related to tone but slightly different. Voice is about who you are as a writer, while tone is about how you feel about your subject or audience. In other words, my voice is still my own, whether I’m annoyed, charmed, or frazzled.
What part of your voice comes through—and how much—might depend on the audience and context of the piece. For that reason, many writers have an academic writing “persona.” In other words, writers choose (consciously or unconsciously) to present a particular aspect of their character in an academic setting. That doesn’t mean it’s fake, but it’s how they want to be seen in that context (and is probably not a full view of every part of who they are).
Of course, you can imagine how this could feel fake if you are new to academic writing or if academic style asks you to push aside your language background or dialect. Writing personas and voice raise complicated questions about what we expect of writers and students.
For example, in writing this chapter, I am writing in a teacherly persona. My voice here is similar to how I would speak in a classroom: warm, friendly, and unpretentious. My tone or attitude toward the subject (style) and the audience (you) is informal and, I hope, encouraging and helpful without being patronizing.
The voice I am using here is authentic—it does really feel true to me and who I am—and that’s easy for me to achieve after teaching for many years. It’s mostly unconscious at this point, but that certainly wasn’t the case when I started my career! Even still, this writing voice isn’t every part of me. My voice can be sassier—or even raucous!—in a lively text chain with friends, and it’s stern in an angry email to my insurance company. However, in all of those scenarios, you can hear me. How I write is always a little different than how you write—and that’s a good thing. It makes writing more interesting and engaging to read.
One of the best ways to develop your voice is to write a lot. You might try writing a page a day, or reading your own work out loud, or asking a friend to read through your work. Writers have to “find” their own voice through time and practice.
Ultimately, the goal is to find a balance between yourself and the writing expectations of the genre. Find an academic writing style (or persona) that feels appropriate and—if possible—true to who you are.
- Do you think it’s problematic to ask students to write only in standardized English? Who benefits from this expectation and who is harmed? How might this expectation impact writers’ experience or success in the classroom or other settings?
- Vershawn Ashanti Young argues that rather than expecting students to shift between their personal dialects and dominant (standardized) English, we should all become “plurilingual” in order to better understand and be open to a mix of dialects. What do you think about this solution?
- Why is wordiness a problem at a sentence or paragraph level? Why does this matter, do you think? What is the risk of filling up 10% of your paper with fluff? How will that change the quality of the final product?
- How would you describe the tone and voice of this chapter? What writerly choices impact the tone here? Why do you think I made those choices? Is it effective?
- Select one paragraph from a paper that you have previously completed (for this class or another). Revise it for conciseness using the guidelines in this chapter. What patterns do you notice in your own writing? Which version of the paragraph do you like better and why?
- Research one of the following areas of English usage and mechanics, and then teach it to a small or large group of your peers. Be sure to explain the rule and why/if it matters. Write two to three good examples and one bad example of the rule to help your audience understand.
- Comma to separate independent clauses
- Comma after an introductory phrase
- Comma to set off nonrestrictive clauses
- Singular they
- Look at three to four magazine or journal articles. Does the author use an “I” voice? How does this decision affect the tone of the piece? Why might they have made this writerly choice?
- Find a recent text chain or social media post that you wrote and “translate” it into more formal, academic language.
- Take a paragraph from a scholarly article and “translate” it into more informal, conversational language. Which do you think is more effective? What are some different audiences that might work for both?
- Select four to five sentences from an article or book that you admire. Now, try writing your own sentences in the same syntax as the original. In other words, steal the structure of the sentence, but write about an entirely new topic. Example: I came, I saw, I conquered. My rewrite: She woke, she blinked, she sighed.
- Rewrite each of the following sentences in three different ways (same content and ideas, just a different order). Which version do you like best?
- She walked the dog past the empty post office, and the dog barked twice.
- The soup may be brothy, but it is delicious. It’s also vegetarian!
- Huang argues that the previous studies were incomplete, since they underestimated the impact of political belief on the survey results.
- Try writing the worst possible version of the following famous quotes. What makes the new versions so ineffective?
- Fortune favors the bold. (Virgil)
- I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse. (The Godfather)
- No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. (Eleanor Roosevelt)
- You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. (James Baldwin)
- May the Force be with you. (Star Wars)
Standardized English and Correctness
- The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has many excellent handouts on and examples of elements of style, including passive voice, conciseness, semicolons, commas, and more.
- For more on “correctness” in writing, including the correct and incorrect usage of commas, colons, modifiers, and more, see Amy Guptill’s chapter on Getting the Mechanics Right.
- Oregon State University has a growing video series on grammar, including topics like commas, parallelism, and gender-neutral language. Check out the playlist at The Oregon State Guide to Grammar.
- For interactive learning and practice with standardized English, including parts of speech, punctuation, and syntax, dig into the Khan Academy Grammar series.
If you are interested in internet linguistics and how language has changed in the digital age, check out Gretchen McCullough’s book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.
Another fun one is Emmy Favilla’s A World without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the Buzzfeed Age. Favilla was the global copy chief at Buzzfeed and often had to invent the rules for writing in internet speak. The many screenshots and chat debates here show the social and invented nature of grammar!
Boland, Julie E., and Robin Queen. “If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages.” PLOS ONE, vol. 11, no. 3, 9 Mar. 2016, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149885.
Inoue, Asao B. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. WAC Clearinghouse, 2015.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books, 2015.
Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed., Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2010, pp. 110–117, https://doi.org/10.17077/2168-569X.1095.