Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

What is Style?

In Roman times people did their writing and marking on waxed tablets. The instrument they used had a sharp point and was called a stylus (compare the similarly named needle on a record player).

After a good bit of service, the tip of the stylus became abraded and was hard to use by anyone other than the owner, for only the owner held the pen in the position that had caused the abrasion. Even then, a writer's style--for stylus is the origin of our modern word--was individual.

We can look at style as the sum total of the lexical (diction) and syntactic (sentence structure) choices you make when you write. Every time you compose a paper you must make thousands of such choices (someone once estimated 20,000 or so phrasing decisions in a single draft of an average-sized paper).

And patterns do emerge, as surely as they do in the writings of such distinctive stylists as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein. In fact, that is why plagiarism (see chapter XVI, "Plagiarism") is often so easy to detect, especially by sensitive-eared English teachers: the sudden appearance of a different set of stylistic choices is jarring.

One of your goals at Guilford should be to expand your repertoire of stylistic options as much as possible. Such expansion may mean learning new vocabulary. It may mean experimenting with elements of sentence structure like appositives, participial phrases, and absolute constructions. It may mean practicing elegant patterns of parallelism or learning to enrich your prose with figurative language. It should mean finding an authentic voice.

The question often arises, "if style is such an individual thing, how can anyone criticize or grade it? Isn't it a matter of personal taste?"

Style is largely a matter of personal taste. But some choices are clearly better than others, especially in specific situations. For example, look at the difference in word-per-sentence averages a recent study found in the following types of periodicals:

  • academic journals: high 20's -- low 30's
  • high-quality popular magazines: mid 20's and up (e.g., Harpers, Atlantic Monthly)
  • news magazines: (e.g. Time, Newsweek) high teens
  • Good Housekeeping short story: 9 words per sentence

Why would it be inappropriate for an essay in an academic journal to average 9 words per sentence? We expect academic writing to be more sophisticated and meaty. Syntactically, that means complex rather than simple sentences. Academic style tends to be hypotactic--that is, it relies heavily on subordination within sentences in order to rank ideas in hierarchies and to explore their interrelationships. Simple sentences, when used exclusively, do not have the same potential, because individual simple sentences cannot distinguish different levels structurally or juggle more than one main idea at a time.

This is not to say that all of your sentences at Guilford must be academic and long. You are doubtless already aware that using all one sentence type or sentence length guarantees monotony.

Meanwhile, over-fondness for academic language for its own sake can lead to ossification. Why write "members of an avian species of identical plumage congregate" if you mean "birds of a feather flock" or "pulchritude possesses solely cutaneous profundity" if you mean "beauty is only skin deep"?

How about these variants of familiar phrases: "Individuals who make their abode in vitreous edifices would be advised to refrain from catapulting petrous projectiles," or ""all articles that coruscate with resplendence are not truly curiforous," or "exclusive dedication to cecessitous chores without interludes of hedonistic diversion renders John a hebetudinous fellow"?

Every year Philosophy and Literature, an interdisciplinary journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press, holds a contest to determine the worst writing of the above kind which has appeared in print in the previous year. A recent "winner" was Frederic Jameson, a Duke University professor, for this morsel from his book The Political Unconscious:

The triumphant moment in which a new systemic dominant gains ascendance is therefore only the diachronic manifestation of constant struggle for the perpetuation and reproduction of its dominance, a struggle which must continue throughout its life course, accompanied at all moments by the systemic or structural antagonism of those older and newer modes of production that resist assimilation or seek deliverance from it.

Your goal at Guilford is not to produce "professional writing" like the above paragraph (which even fellow scholars deplore), but to expand your stylistic range. You'll want to make pleasing variety possible and to find and maintain an authentic personal voice in the face of the serious demands that academic writing will place on you.

The artist Vincent Van Gogh said that he intended to leave mankind "some memento in the forms of drawings or paintings--not to please any particular movement, but to express a sincere human feeling." Perhaps you can consider that part of your mandate as well.

Joseph Harris, former editor of College Communication and Composition, proposed that our goal in academic writing should be a "strongly voiced critical prose," one that transcends and fuses the personal essay and academic discourse. Not a bad goal.