The purpose of writing and communicating is to exchange or express ideas. Whether through academic writing or creative storytelling a documents sense of style is just as important as its subject matter. The style is what makes it effective, and it is what conveys the information in an appealing way. This essay looks at what style is, what constitutes ‘good style,’ and how writers achieve it. An important requirement of writers in the 21st century is to adapt to new technologies and genres. So how does this effect style? And how have the elements of style changed in the 21st century?
What is style?
Style is how a written piece is approached. Style arises from the grammar, word choice, sentence structure, paragraphing, tone, genre, and publication. It is how the ‘parts’ work together, and good style is achieved through thorough planning, writing, and editing (Eunson 2012, p. 3.23; Snooks et al. 2002, p. 448). Throughout the whole writing process even the smaller details such as, spelling and punctuation need to be carefully considered. Regardless of the genre, good style must include, grammatical correctness, clarity of expression, and appropriate tone.
Style is not just aesthetic, it also needs to be functional (Eisenberg 1992, p. 47). Stylistic choices that obscure the intended meaning undermine the purpose of communicating: to convey messages (Eunson 2012, p. 3.23). For the audience to get the point that the writer is making clarity of expression is vital, and can be achieved by removing unnecessary words, ‘redundancies, inflated phrases, and questionable expressions’ (Eisenberg 1992, p. 49).
If a text is not easily accessible, and therefore not successful, it is likely due to an inappropriate use of style (Eisenberg 1992, p. 48). Most of the time good use of style does not draw attention to itself, because the point of it is to disguise the construction of the information allowing the information to take precedence. However, this does not preclude employing and admiring ‘style for its own sake,’ such as in creative fiction (Eunson 2012, p. 3.24). But, as Baden Eunson (2012, p. 3.24) notes, ‘The main goal to strive for as writers is to ensure that, whatever the genre or register we are writing in, style does not overwhelm content.’
Different genres have their own style requirements. For example, consider a technically written text, such as an instruction manual, and how it differs to a creatively written text, such as a poem. The conventions of one will not necessarily be appropriate in the other. A poem’s success might come from metaphor and varied interpretations, whereas with an instruction manual metaphor and interpretation are the opposite of what is required. There is no point in using abstract metaphors or having ‘plot twists’ when trying to be clear and persuasive (Boiarsky & Soven 1995, p. 37; Carroll 2014, p. 18).
Considering the audience is an important facet of writing and it ‘distinguishes communication from expression for expression’s sake’ (Carroll 2014, p. 16). Taking into account the audience’s needs is key to employing appropriate style. Writers need to keep in mind what they are trying to say, and how they want audiences to receive their writing (Eunson 2012, p. 3.24). Tailoring a document for the audience will ensure that they are able to digest the information and go on to be persuaded by it or act on it (Boiarsky & Soven 1995, p. 37). The strategies that writers employ when meeting the reader’s needs, and their own purposes, are ‘persuasion, organization, visualization, readability, ancillary information, and navigation and location’ (Boiarsky & Soven 1995, p. 33). Most of these strategies relate to style in terms of what choices the writer is going to make. For example, organising the information so that it is logical, constructing a visually appealing document, and implementing strategies so that the audience can navigate it. Readers ‘often judge the validity of a document by a writer’s ability to refer to the appropriate authorities, follow the appropriate procedures, and use the technical terminology, conventional patterns, styles, and format appropriate to’ the conventions of the community or genre (Boiarsky & Soven 1995, p. 34).
Changes in style
‘New communication techniques and technologies rarely eliminate the ones that preceded them’ (Carroll 2014, p. 16).
An important aspect of written communication, and the mass production of written communication, is its contribution to education, by allowing ‘readers separated by time and space to refer to the same information’ (Carrol 2014, pp. 16–17). This has been the case whether it is the invention of the printing press or the internet. Both have moved written communication forward and provided greater access for larger audiences in more varied situations. With the advent of the internet—which is itself a ‘network of networks’—the scale of texts accessible, the number of interconnections, and the speed with which they can be assessed has increased (Eunson 2012, p. 198).
The rise of the internet and digital media has facilitated some vast differences in texts when they are published. For example, a digital copy of an article can include other media such as video or audio, and can have a comment section for reader discussion (Carroll 2014, pp. 40–43; Snooks et al. 2002, pp. 448–449). However, it would still need to employ style appropriately to be received well by readers. As Brian Carroll (2014, p. 18) says, ‘Technology changes the way in which an artefact is used, read, stored, searched, altered, and controlled,’ but it does not necessarily change the underlying conventions—such as accuracy and clarity—expected of the artefact.
Another major factor of digital and online content is its immediacy. A text can be released to millions of readers in seconds, updated frequently, and then deleted or moved (Carroll 2014, p. 43). Speed of access, along with the vast numbers of users online, has increased the audience demand for more content and more variety. This uniquely places compact texts, such as blogs, to tackle smaller topics in a short space, akin to a single newspaper or magazine article yet without the onus on the writer to be connected to—or employed by—a larger network (Cayley 2014). One impact of this immediacy on writers is the move toward shortening prose and using spoken language norms most notable in social media, but also present in emails and instant messaging (Cayley 2014). While a direct impact of this immediacy on audiences is their patience: online content generally needs to grab their attention within seconds, because new or different content is ‘always a click or scroll away’ (Carroll 2014, p. 43; Cayley 2014).
Online spaces are often ‘socially mediated’ and linked to other online spaces (Carroll 2014, p. 40). There are thousands of messages being transmitted online each minute and discerning the credibility of the author can be difficult (Carroll 2014, p. 46). Anyone with access to the internet can start publishing content. A consequence of this is that audiences can consider disparate content as similarly credible. For this reason—where possible—writers need to be cautious of being imprecise, making unsubstantiated claims, and being disingenuously persuasive.
Instead of just considering the structure, grammar, and design of digital documents, writers and publishers also need to consider transmission and ‘how it will then be found, opened, displayed and used’ (Snooks et al. 2002, p. 441). These are arguably additions to style due to their impact on the form of the text, and can involve a more technical understanding of different formats. An example of a technical language that writers, or writing teams, will need to learn is HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language). A document can simply be converted to HTML, but the conversion will not be perfect and some changes will need to be made, for example, segmenting it into multiple pages; ensuring some characters display properly, such as em rules; and checking that ‘indenting, tabbing, multiple line returns, borders and shading’ appear as intended when converted (Snooks et al. 2002, pp. 446–447). All of which requires understanding HTML code in order to edit it.
Ensuring that online and digital media is equally as accessible for people with disabilities requires provisions such as, ‘text-to-speech’ conversion, appropriate colouring, and options for audio and visual presentation of information (Snooks et al. 2002, p. 430). For writers and publishers of online and digital content, the guidelines set out by organisations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) need to be adhered to. These guidelines include: ‘captioning and transcripts for audio material, and text descriptions for video material; “alt text” (alternative text) for all images, animations and other active features; [and using] signposting techniques such as consistent headings, lists and other content structures’ (Snooks et al. 2002, p. 430).
Shifting between multiple modes of address in the modern age, from text messages, emails, social media posts, academic writing, and professional correspondence can provide writers with a broad spectrum of expertise and understanding of how to communicate effectively. It encourages writers to consider language in different ways (Cayley 2014). ‘While people worry that the unique demands of Twitter or the text message will undermine writing ability, it seems entirely possible that the experience of writing in multiple registers will actually strengthen writing overall’ (Cayley 2014).
Style is an important consideration when writing, is equally applicable to all texts, and has a few universal requirements. Ensuring that a message is appealing is the first step towards ensuring that its intended purpose is fulfilled. In the 21st century with advances in technologies there are extra demands placed on writers. With a wider range of genres, and a far larger pool of potential readers, online and digital publications need to ensure they employ style appropriately in order to maintain the interest of the equally advancing reader. The extra requirements of writers, also extends to more opportunities, such as, audio-visual elements, interconnectivity with other documents, more platforms on which stories can feature, and faster reader feedback and interaction.
Boiarsky, CR & Soven, MK 1995, ‘Discourse strategies’, in Writings from the workplace: documents, models, cases, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, pp. 33–72.
Carroll, B 2014, Writing & editing for digital media, 2nd edn, Routledge, New York.
Cayley, R 2014, ‘Social media and writing style’, blog post, Explorations of style: a blog about academic writing, April 2, viewed 12 October 2015, <http://explorationsofstyle.com/2014/04/02/social-media-and-writing-style/>.
Eisenberg, A 1992, ‘Editing for style’, in Effective technical communication, 2nd edn, McGraw Hill, New York, pp. 47–65.
Eunson, B 2012, ‘Writing skills 3: style’, in Communicating in the 21st century, 3rd edn, John Wiley & Sons Australia, QLD, pp. 3.2–3.41.
Snooks, L, Whitbread, D, Peters, P, Pirie, C, Harrington, M, Richardson, V, O’Loghlin, G, Hamilton, J, Purchase, S & Mackerras, L 2002, Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, QLD.