how to write an essay
 

Step 10b: Style

Your style is the fingerprint of your writing and consists of a number of comprising elements. As you edit your essay for style, pay attention to these six areas:

Avoid Personal References

Avoid using personal references such as "I" or "In my opinion." It is very easy to say "I feel" or "I think," but this adds little to your essay except a weak argument. If your sentence reads, "I think the Internet is a great source of information," what do the words "I think" add? Rather than supplying a reason for the Internet being a great source of information, the reason given here is "because I think so."

In addition to providing a weak argument, using "I" also takes the focus off the subject and places it on you, the writer, which is sometimes desired in creative writing, but undesirable in an academic essay where the focus is supposed to be on a specific topic. You can usually recast your sentence in a way that omits personal references, but if the sentence just doesn't sound right without "I," then leave it in. It's better to be self-centered than unreadable.

  • Personal References: In my opinion, gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage and the essential structure of the family, which is the fabric of society.
  • Revised: Gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage and the essential structure of the family, which is the fabric of society.

  • Personal References: I think that society is held together by allowing individuals to live as they which, not by constricting laws.
  • Revised: Society is held together by allowing individuals to live as they which, not by constricting laws.

Diction: Choose the right words

Students learning to use a thesaurus often use it excessively and incorrectly in their selection of words. Knowing that all synonyms do not mean the same thing -- that each synonym has a subtle nuance of meaning making it distinct from the other words -- will help you avoid random substitutions of words that merely seem to look better. Using good diction in your essay involves choosing exactly the right word for the meaning you want. If you're unsure of a word's meaning, look it up in an online dictionary or download a dictionary to your computer.

  • Poor Diction: Devlin's essay predicates that a society consists of a group of people brought together by a common set of morals and assurances.
  • Better Diction: Devlin's essay asserts that a society consists of a group of people brought together by a common set of morals and beliefs.

  • Poor Diction: Hart responds that Devlin's essay is nothing more than a babble and malentendu of what a society is.
  • Better Diction: Hart responds that Devlin's essay is nothing more than a confusion and misunderstanding of what a society is.

Vary your sentence length

"Choppiness" is the effect of multiple short sentences in a row giving a sense of breathlessness and childlike simplicity. Contrastingly, the opposite -- multiple, successive elongated sentences one after another -- gives a sense of never-ending lung power and pompous sophistication. A short sentence can be a good option for the content you're writing, just as a long one can as well. The key is to mix them up so that you have some short sentences and some long alternating with each other. This variety will give rhythm to your prose.

  • Choppy sentences: John turned on the computer. He opened Framemaker. He selected a new document. The document was blank. He opened the graphics panel. He chose the shape tool. It was a polygon. He filled the polygon with red shading. He put a black border on it. It was a nice day. His mother brought him sandwiches. The sandwiches tasted good. (Holy Smokes! I could not take more than about half a page of this before I would go crazy!)

  • Over-elongated sentences: Turning on the computer, John opened Framemaker and, after selecting a blank document and opening the graphics panel, chose a polygonal shape tool which he filled with red shading and a black border while his mother brought him sandwiches, all of which contributed to him having a nice day. Then, deliberating between a black and white or a color layout, John decided that for a publication that would be on the web as well as in print, he would need to create both types of documents, because the print would be too costly for color photos, while the web would be too dull for merely black and white, but this color vs. non-color dilemma was only the tip of the iceberg for John in Framemaker, for he knew neither how to create anchored frames for his graphics, nor how to manipulate the sizes and resolutions of the photos he wanted to import, which was giving him a headache, despite his mother's nice sandwiches. (Combining sentences is fun up to a point, and then it gets ridiculous.)

  • Perfect mix of short and long: After turning on the computer, John opened Framemaker and selected a blank document. He then opened the graphics panel, chose a polygonal shape tool, and filled it with red shading and a black border. His mother brought him sandwiches, which made his day nice. Then, deliberating between a black and white or a color layout, John decided that for a publication that would be on the web as well as in print, he would need to create both types of documents. The print would be too costly for color photos, while the web would be too dull for merely black and white. But this color . . . (You get the point by now--variety leads to a pleasing rhythm.)

Avoid sexist pronouns

Although in the past it was acceptable to use "he" when referring to both men and women, it is no longer acceptable to do so now. Why? Because linguists found that language use actually does have an impact on the way people think and act. If pronouns are always "he," and certain professions are always fireman, policeman, chairman, congressmen, etc, then it is more likely that men -- by simple virtue of the privileged masculine pronoun and noun use -- will fill those positions, and that women will feel that they do not belong in them. Avoiding sexist pronouns will help you find liberation from these restricting gender roles.

Even if you disagree with the above theory, using "he" only pronouns is a practice that is no longer tolerated in MLA style. You should instead choose to pluralize your subject and use "they" or "their" when referring back to that subject. Or you can choose "he or she," but if you need to write "he or she" more than twice in the sentence, you might give your reader a headache. Try to avoid "s/he" or "he/she" simply because it is unsightly. Really the best solution is pluralization. (When implementing the plural solution, remember the principle of agreement. "Everyone needs their umbrella" is not grammatical, because "everyone" is a singular subject.)
    • Sexist: If a medical student wants to succeed, he has to learn to budget his time wisely.
    • Liberated: If medical students want to succeed, they have to learn to budget his time wisely.

    • Sexist: If one wants to become a DJ, he has to be familiar with the current music styles and have a strong sense of internal rhythm and musical flow.
    • Liberated: If one wants to become a DJ, he or she has to be familiar with the current music styles and have a strong sense of internal rhythm and musical flow.

    • Sexist: A good computer programmer has to root his knowledge in practical experience.
    • Liberated: Good computer programmers have to root their knowledge in practical experience.

Maintain a level of formality

Just as in in daily life, in writing you naturally adjust the level of formality of your writing style to the situation and audience. You may use one level of formality with your teacher, and another level with your best friend. In an academic essay, be sure to maintain a formal voice. One way to adjust your level of formality is by avoiding contractions (i.e., using "do not" instead of "don't"). However, it is acceptable to use contractions if you desire to.

  • Hyper-formal: The degree to which private controversial moralities are decriminalized by the federal government depends on the extent of their injurious repercussions on an otherwise benign society.
  • Too informal: The feds will start putting pervs and whores in the slammer if they feel their smutty actions are mixin' up good men and women.
  • Just right: Whether private immoralities are outlawed by the government or not depends on the harm they inflict on public society.

Avoid emotionalism

In addition to a formal voice, you should also maintain a cool-headed, objective tone. Tone usually becomes an issue when you are writing about hot topics you feel strongly about -- religion, for example, or cultural values. Even when you strongly disagree with an idea, avoid getting "emotional" in your expression. Avoid seeming angry, or condescending, or rude. Keep your calm and remain scholarly, and try to portray yourself as one who is objectively assessing the situation.

  • Emotional: We must do everything we can to legalize gay marriage. For the sake of equality, the rights of liberty and freedom that our forefathers fought for--it is essential!!! Don't let conservatives take over your government and impose their puritanical moral values on everyone. This is only going to lead to dozens of more restrictions that those white-haired conservatives will impose in their cozy congress seats!

  • Objective: Keeping gay marriage illegal poses significant questions about the constitutionality of such laws. The forefathers who wrote the Constitution believed an individual's freedom was vitally important, and that as long as the actions did not cause directly harm to society, the actions should not be decriminalized.

 


Tom Johnson. tjohnson@aucegypt.edu. Last updated May 2004.