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Style refers to the way we express ourselves in writing. While there is no one standard style that every writer must follow, there are two key elements in an effective writing style. One is readability, meaning the use of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in such a way as to communicate facts and ideas clearly. The other is elegance, meaning the use of appropriate and interesting words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs to produce graceful, unobtrusive prose that will keep a reader's attention and interest. Good style communicates information effectively. It moves the reader along easily from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and one section of the paper to the next. Bad style is boring and often confusing.
- Write in coherent paragraphs. A coherent paragraph is a group of sentences all relating to one basic idea. The first sentence is often a topic sentence, meaning that it states the unifying theme that binds the sentences together. In a paragraph, each sentence should develop logically from the preceding one. Often, one should use "connector" words or phrases to make this logical development clear to the reader.
- Write paragraphs that are neither too short nor too long. Avoid paragraphs that contain only one sentence. If you have a paragraph that is more than about a half page in length, try to break it into at least two paragraphs.
- Begin most sentences with the subject, rather than with a dependent clause, an adverb, or a prepositional phrase. Such devices may provide useful variety if used sparingly, but they often slow the natural flow of ideas.
Bad: John Smith, realizing that he had perhaps only one last opportunity to bring order to a community torn by strife and lack of bureaucratic efficiency, decided to assume absolute control over the Jamestown settlers.
Better: John Smith decided to assume absolute control over the Jamestown settlers, realizing that this might be his last opportunity to bring order to a community torn by strife and lack of bureaucratic efficiency.
- Write with an economy of words. Communicate a fact, opinion, argument, etc. with as few words as possible. Good writers always follow this principle. Several of the following suggestions will contribute to developing a tight prose style.
- Do not use empty, cliche words and phrases in your writing. These include
"Generally," "in general," "basically," "it went as follows," "really," "it has been proven time and time again that . . .," "the fact of the matter is . . . ." Here is a very wordy example.
Bad: It is a safe assumption to state the idea that the attitudes of our forefathers have affected the entire course of history.
Better: Delete the first ten words. Begin the sentence with: The attitudes of our forefathers . . . . . (Communicates the same idea much more forcefully and directly.)
- Avoid the passive voice wherever possible. Use the active voice instead.
Passive voice: President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.
The same information, recast in the active voice: John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln.
(The passive voice is usually in the form shown in the first example: the word "was," followed by the past tense of the verb, followed by a preposition.)
Overuse of the passive voice is one of the most common style errors in college student papers. The passive voice is weak; things are happening to people rather than people doing things. Also, the passive voice is wordier, therefore more boring. (One cannot always avoid the passive voice, especially if the subject is not known, or if it would sound strange [or be wordy] to specify a subject.)
- Keep sentences relatively short. Overly long sentences slow the reader down and can hide the writer's meaning. One way to keep sentences short is to avoid excessive use of dependent clauses. If a portion of your paper seems stiff and difficult to follow, count the number of dependent clauses. If several follow one after the other, rewrite.
- Do not overuse adjectives. Properly used, adjectives can add interest and clarity. Too many adjectives, however, slow down the flow of your ideas.
- Do not string together prepositional phrases in a sentence. It makes it difficult for a reader to understand what you are trying to say.
Bad: The civil rights movement of the post-World War II era among black activists in the South and sympathetic liberals in other parts of the nation and among some leaders in both major political parties was part of a progressive tradition aimed at elements of society with legitimate complaints against the prejudices of the majority of persons in twentieth-century America.
Better: The post-World War II civil rights movement attracted black activists in the South and sympathetic liberals throughout the nation and had the support of some leaders in both major political parties. It was part of a progressive tradition which sought to meet the legitimate complaints of persons suffering racial discrimination at the hands of many twentieth-century Americans.
- Avoid using prepositional phrases conveying possession wherever possible. Change to the possessive form.
Wordy: The chief talent of Daniel Webster was his gift of oratory.
Better: Daniel Webster's chief talent was . . . .
- Always use the past tense when writing about things that happened in the past.
Bad: The problem, as Houston views it, is how to keep his army intact. Meanwhile, Santa Anna pursues him relentlessly. (Change to viewed, was, and pursued.)
- Avoid repeating words and/or phrases in close proximity to one another. Such prose is boring.
The following excerpt from an actual history term paper illustrates the problem:
It seemed the years of prosperity were to come to an end for Castroville. In the 1880s, Castroville rejected a proposition from a railroad company due to the cost and it was subsequently built five miles south of Castroville. This killed the freighting business of Castroville almost at once, and in 1892 the county seat was also moved to Hondo. Many of the people of Castroville moved to the new county seat, while others moved to San Antonio.
A particular case of the same problem: Avoid repeating pronouns referring to the same person throughout a paragraph (she, her, hers, she, she, her, etc.). This is boring. Solution: In some of the instances, use of the person's name, title, or other words and phrases which identify the person.
The situation changed in the 1880s, after Castroville rejected a proposition from a railroad company to construct a line through the town. It was subsequently built five miles south of the community. This quickly killed off the local freighting business. In 1892 the county seat transferred to Hondo. Many Castrovillians moved there, while others withdrew to San Antonio.
- Clarity demands that you identify important persons and terms in your paper. Your theoretical target reader is not your professor but a fellow college student who is not an expert on your subject or on history in general. Therefore, when you introduce a person in your prose, briefly identify him or her. Also, if you introduce a term that is not familiar to the typical college student, briefly explain it in the text.
This is difficult to define and describe. Perhaps it is useful to suggest that elegant writing style is neither colloquial and "slangy" nor too much given to fancy, polysyllabic words, either. It is graceful, aesthetically pleasing, and unobstrusive. Following are suggestions to help you write with in an elegant style.
- Wherever possible, use short words (generally of Anglo-Saxon origin) rather than longer ones (often derived from Latin). In 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to United States President Franklin Roosevelt, requesting war matériel to stave off defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. These were his words: "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job." He did not say, "Deliver to us the implements, and we will complete the assignment." While the quotation is not taken from historical writing, it suggests that short words often move the reader along more effectively than long ones.
- Do not use contractions in formal writing. Example: Alexander didn't end his conquests once he had liberated the Greek colonies of Ionia from Persian rule. (Write out both words, did not.)
- Do not use slang or colloquialisms in formal writing.
Jackson was fixing to (change to about to) leave for his plantation in Tennessee but reconsidered when he heard what Calhoun had said.
Grant was drunk a lot of the time. (Change to much.)
- In most instances, avoid using personal pronouns referring to you, the author of the paper.
It seems to me that Senator McCarthy should have realized that he had gone too far in his "witch-hunt" for suspected Communists. (Delete the first five words.)
Napoleon's greatest mistake, as I see it, was his invasion of Russia in 1812. (Delete the phrase set off by commas.)
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