All writers are able to develop and craft their own writing style. Style encompasses the choices writers make concerning the pace, tone, expression, emphasis, and appearance of their work to engage with their readers and convey their ideas. However, it is important to consider the rules of the genre in which you are writing. What is appropriate in one writing context may be inappropriate in another. For this handout, we review some style strategies that may be helpful when crafting an academic tone.
Splitting the infinitive
A verb’s most basic form is the infinitive, when “to” is placed before it. Examples include to keep, to sit, and to give. When a word is placed between the “to” and the verb, it is called splitting the infinitive (to quickly run; to fundamentally alter). Splitting the infinitive is often seen as weak language, and some instructors may dock points if you use them in your writing. You can shift the word after the infinitive to avoid splitting it (to run quickly; to alter fundamentally). However, because splitting the infinitive has been naturally adopted in our spoken language (popularized most notably by Star Trek: “to boldly go where no man has gone before”), it is often seen as an old-fashioned “rule” that can usually be ignored. Make sure you know your instructors’ preferences, and shift your writing accordingly if necessary.
Ending a sentence with a preposition
Another common sentence-level “rule” related to style is to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Doing so leads to weak sentences and therefore weak writing because people expect words to follow prepositions, and lacking follow through makes a sentence feel incomplete. To fix this issue, you can generally add “which” to the preposition you have, and then place the two words appropriately in the sentence. You can also more significantly rewrite your point if necessary.
Inappropriate: With final papers due this week, summer is the last thing I am thinking about.
Appropriate: With final papers due this week, summer is the last thing about which I am thinking.
Starting a sentence with a conjunction
Many instructors and professional writers don’t want sentences to begin with a conjunction. Each sentence you write should be self-sufficient, and having “and,” “but,” or other words at the start of your sentences means it depends on the previous sentence for context. To fix this issue, you can combine your sentence with the previous one for clarity, or leave off the conjunction and find another way to connect the sentences’ meanings.
Inappropriate: I love papercraft projects. But sometimes the cost of a template keeps me from pursuing my passion for folding, cutting, and gluing.
Appropriate: I love papercraft projects, but sometimes the cost of a template keeps me from pursuing my passion for folding, cutting, and gluing.
Appropriate: I love papercraft projects. Sometimes, however, the cost of a template keeps me from pursuing my passion for folding, cutting, and gluing.
Using words like “all” or “every” or “none” or other words that indicate everything is one way is a weak writing choice, because very rarely is something always the case. Leaving room for exceptions by avoiding these absolute statements will help strengthen your writing.
Inappropriate: Everyone cried when Han Solo died at the end of The Force Awakens #spoilers.
Appropriate: A lot of people cried when Han Solo died at the end of The Force Awakens #spoilers.
Sometimes you will need to be more formal (especially in academic writing), and use jargon or other sophisticated words to convey your meaning.
Example: Scientists at the Institute of Cryology and Genetics continue their decades-long domestication experiments with the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), with new color morphs appearing in almost every generation.
Other times you can be more casual (especially in civic writing), and use more relatable language.
Example: In Siberia, scientists have been working on domesticating foxes for decades, and new color morphs are being recorded with each new generation.
When writing for extremely casual contexts, sometimes slang or colloquialisms are even appropriate (social media, creative writing, etc.).
Example: Did you know that floofy foxes are being bred in Russia to look like dogs? It’s amazing!
Consistency and Tone
Make sure that you are using verb tenses, point of view, and other elements appropriately in your writing. When they don’t match up, you lose cohesion, concision, and credibility with your reader. See our handout on disagreement for more information on these mistakes and how to fix them. Another important element with regard to consistency is tone. Make sure you have an appropriate tone in your writing for your context, audience, and purpose, and that it is consistent throughout.
- Do you think a sense of humor or sarcasm would be appropriate?
- Do you think slang or informal language would be appropriate?
- Do you need to use jargon or other formal, specialized language?
- Should you use “you” and be more intimate with your reader?
- Should you be objective and distant from your reader?
All of these questions will help you identify the best tone for your piece of writing.
Once you figure out the perfect word choice for your sentences, you can then begin to build paragraphs! It’s important that as you do so you find ways to make your writing varied and interesting. Using different types of sentences together changes the pace and creates an interesting rhythm in your writing. See our Sentence Patterns handout for more information on the different types of sentences.
Parallelism helps create more balanced writing by putting together corresponding grammatical elements. Parallelism can be achieved by combining similar grammatical elements, using correlatives, and “doubling” relative pronouns.
When writing sentences, it is very useful when you have more than one element to match grammatical types together—for example, pairing nouns with nouns, adjectives with adjectives, phrases with phrases, and clauses with clauses will help make your writing more consistent.
Trish was bright and personable; Jessica was moody and reserved.
Jeri Hogarth, is a fierce woman, a disloyal wife, and a power-hungry attorney.
Kevin Thompson manipulates and controls anything he can.
I like collecting rare minerals and making new friends among other enthusiasts.
Correlatives come in pairs and show relationships between different words (either… or, neither…nor, both…and, not only…but also, and whether…or).
Either Jessica outmaneuvers Kilgrave, or Kilgrave gains control of the city.
Not only are Jessica and Trish partners, but they are also best friends with a close history.
Parallel construction can also be achieved by doubling the relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, that, which, what, whoever, whomever, whichever, or whatever) in a sentence.
Kevin is a person whose past is a mystery and whose future is just as indeterminable.
Alias Investigations aims to help whoever walks in the door and whoever calls on the phone.
Analyze Your Verbs, Adjectives, and Adverbs
When writing, make sure your verbs are as strong and specific as possible. You will want to avoid, as much as you can, “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). You often can change your sentence and include a more active verb and end up with a stronger sentence.
For example, if you find yourself writing sentences using “is” or “are,” you often could shift your sentence to include action rather than identification.
Inappropriate: The fox is a voracious eater of meat, especially eggs.
Appropriate: The fox eats meat voraciously, especially eggs.
See how in this example, the second sentence conveys action, and paints a picture? That’s a stronger style to adopt for your own writing.
This is also an issue closely related to Passive Voice. See our handout on that issue for more information.
Adjectives and Adverbs
If you find yourself using a lot of adjectives and adverbs in your writing, step back and think about whether it’s really necessary to convey your point. Often, a more specific or stronger verb can be used in a much simpler way than combining adjectives and adverbs with nouns to try and get your point across.
Inappropriate: The marathon runner moved quickly and recklessly down the path to the finish line.
Appropriate: The marathon runner careened down the path to the finish line.
A Word of Advice: As with any technique, overuse can diminish the variety you looked for to begin with, so use discretion in your next assignment. Practice these strategies outlined in this handout, and find your voice in your unique writing style.