Developing Your Writing Style
A writer’s style is their voice on the page—the unique way they communicate their ideas. Each decision regarding diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure) shapes a writer’s style. Thus, it’s essential to be aware of how the choices you make influence your writing—and therefore your readers’ perception of your work. In other words, actively craft your style rather than just letting it happen!
How Do You Know What Style to Use?
Different rhetorical situations (learn about the rhetorical situation in our Building Graduate-Level Writing Skills guide) call for different writing styles. For instance, the style you would use in a cover letter for an important job application is different from the style you would use in a text message to your best friend. When considering what style to use, keep your audience and the context at the front of your mind. Considering who will read your writing—and where they will read it—will help you make appropriate choices. If you’re writing an article for a scientific journal focusing on physics, for example, you can reference concepts that scholars in your field will already know (like “centrifugal force” and “electromagnetism”) without defining them; it makes sense to use technical language because your audience is a group of experts. If you’re writing a textbook chapter for a high school physics class, it makes sense to use simpler language since your audience doesn’t have the prior knowledge to understand the material.
One of the main questions writers ask is whether it’s okay to use “I.” Chances are you’ve been given different answers from different instructors, and it never hurts to check in with your professors or advisor since conventions vary in different disciplines. As a general rule, though, use “I” if seeking to avoid it results in overly complicated sentence constructions or obscures the meaning of what you’re trying to say. Some scholars may also choose to use “I” to highlight their ownership of a particular idea or contribution to their field, or to make clear how their work diverges from that of other scholars.
For more information, check out this resource about using “I” and weaving personal experiences in your writing.
Strategies for Shaping Your Style
As discussed in our resource on Building Graduate-Level Writing Skills, graduate writers are engaged in a scholarly conversation about their specific topic/area of focus. While integrating information from previous research is essential to building your credibility as a writer and positioning your work in relationship to the work of others in your field, it’s equally essential to make sure that your voice comes through strongly.
In order to ensure that your voice is at the fore, the University of Vermont’s Graduate Writing Center suggests using a color-coding exercise. Follow these steps:
As you read through your writing, use a highlighter to mark places in your text where you integrate ideas from outside sources (whether you’re agreeing, disagreeing, or providing background information).
Read through your draft a second time, using a highlighter of a different color to mark places where you’re sharing your own analysis or findings.
Have I appropriately cited my sources? If you notice that you’ve included ideas that stemmed from your research but haven’t clearly stated where those ideas came from, add that information.
Are there places where I could expand my discussion of my argument/findings? If you notice opportunities to add more detail about your own work/ideas in your own voice, do so!
Is my voice getting lost? If you notice places where it might be difficult for readers to distinguish ideas from your sources from your own ideas, craft clearer transitions.
Here are additional resources you can explore to hone your writing style:
The University of Toronto’s Writing Advice website provides a list of strong verbs you can use when integrating sources. Verbs are a key part of style because they communicate the nuances of your argument (e.g., “asserts” and “suggests” are two ways of saying that a source is making a particular claim, but “asserts” is more forceful).
The Writing Center at George Mason University’s guide to “Reducing Informality in Academic Writing” works well as a checklist to make sure that your writing is appropriate for an academic audience.
The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s guide to “Writing Concisely” provides tips to help you avoid writing that readers may find “wordy” or that uses the passive voice.
This content was adapted from:
“Forwarding, Illustrating, Countering, & Taking an Approach.” Graduate Writing Center, The University of Vermont, https://www.uvm.edu/sites/default/files/Graduate-Writing-Center/GWC%20Guides/Genres/Entering_the_Conversation.pdf. Accessed 10 January 2023.
“Should I Use ‘I’?” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/should-i-use-i/. Accessed 10 January 2023.
“What is style?” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/writing_style/style%20/Style%20Introduction.html. Accessed 10 January 2023.