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Introduction to Style

Introduction to Style

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson introduces the concept of style and its connection to genre and audience.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be looking at style and the way style impacts genre and vice versa, as well as the intersections between style and audience.

Style is a word that we all recognize. But when it comes to writing, what exactly does it mean? For our purposes, we'll define style as the way someone writes, as opposed to what he or she has written, including word choice, tone, sentence structure and variation, and more.

Even though we often try to separate style from content-- to separate the how from the what, that is-- the two are still very much connected. After all, different genres use different conventions of style, and different audiences will respond better or worse to certain writing styles. So it's not completely up to the writer. Style is, like other aspects of writing, a slave to the writer's purpose and the rhetorical situation surrounding it.

Before we go any further, we should also probably define conventions, just so there's no confusion. In the context of writing, think of convention as a standard or tradition. Something that's expected by readers, and something that a writer should do, unless he or she has a reason for defying expectation. And even then, I advise caution.

For example, if you choose to defy the convention of beginning a business letter with a formal greeting, you'd better be sure about why you're doing so, and what effect you hope it will have. Or, for a completely different kind of convention, if you choose not to start your scary campfire story with, years ago right here on a night just like this, or something to that effect, chances are you won't scare as many little kids. But you never know. The point is, to bring it back to composition, that writers should decide which approach is appropriate for the occasion for writing.

Formal writing is writing that is appropriate for professional or academic environments. But that doesn't mean it has to be stuffy, convoluted, or full of overly heavy vocabulary. Informal writing, meanwhile, is writing that's more appropriate for personal writing, narratives, or interpersonal communication. And they include slang, dialect, colloquialisms, and euphemisms. But that doesn't mean it can't express the same kind of high-minded ideas and points as more formal writing. It would probably need to do it in a different way, though.

Like everything else, it all depends on the writer's purpose and audience. One of the biggest factors impacting a writer's style is the genre of writing he or she is setting out to produce. In general, writers should understand and match the genre's expectations. A genre, which we'll define as a broad or specific category of writing, can be as broad as fiction or poetry, or specific as Gothic fiction, scientific reports, or academic essays. But no matter the genre, the only reason a writer should deviate from its conventions should be to create an intentional effect or change. As a former teacher of mine used to say, if you're going to break the rules, you'd better know why.

Many genres have specific vocabulary, and it's important to be aware of the differences in meaning based on the genre and to know the context for words that have multiple meanings. If, for example, a writer trying to start an online food blog used this as the bio for his opening post, he might run into trouble with that community. "My name is Gordon Randall, and I'm a self-trained chef who loves cooking for my friends and family. I do it so much, it started to impact my career as an accountant, but I don't care. I just love cooking that much!"

Now, this might not seem like a problem, except that Gordon here doesn't know that in the culinary world, the word chef means more than just someone who cooks. Technically, a chef is a professionally trained cook who does, or at least already has, run his or her own kitchen. By making the enthusiastic but naive claim that he is a chef, and then immediately disapproving his own claim in his biography, all Gordon is likely to do is alienate readers within the genre.

But what if he changed the term a little? If he called himself a foodie, for example-- a term people who are interested in eating and cooking fancy food or just plain good food use to refer to themselves-- Gordon would be much more in line with the conventions of the genre he's attempting to write in, and his readers would be more likely to welcome him into it.

Or, what if a student decided to start an essay she'd been assigned to write for a history class like this? "So I was thinking about the Greeks, like you said we should do on Friday. And I decided that I don't really understand them. I mean, they weren't a country, were they? Those cities, what do you call them, city-states? They would work together sometimes, but sometimes they fought each other. What's up with that?"

As you can probably guess, her history professor, or TA more likely, would probably not respond favorably to this writing style. Not because it's ineffective communication-- the student's ideas, her questions, they're all there to be read-- but because she didn't observe the conventions of the genre of academic writing, which expects a more formal tone, less in the way of personal address and first person structures, as in, don't ask questions, don't use I. These aren't hard rules, of course. But in this case, our made-up student's breaking of the rules doesn't serve her purpose in writing very well.

If she'd written something like this though, things might have done differently. "One of the biggest sources of confusion about ancient Greek politics is that modern people tend to think of the Greeks as having belonged to something similar to a modern nation, when in fact they were a loose alliance of independent city-states that spent as much time fighting each other as they did working together." As you can see, even though for the most part the same ideas and points are being raised, our hypothetical student is now observing the genre conventions and will be much more likely to be well received because of it.

One of the primary reasons writers seek to conform to genre standards is that their audience will expect it. And an audience, just be sure, is the reader of a text, which can be intended or unintended. Writers should match the writing style to suit their intended audience. And since different audiences are likely to be persuaded, entertained, convinced, or informed by different styles of writing, it pays for the beginning writer to be flexible and to always consider the intended audience when making any stylistic choices.

Deliberately going against the expected or desired style of an audience should only be done to create an intentional effect. That is, it should be done knowingly and for a specific purpose. Otherwise, the results are likely to be unpleasant. If, for example, a writer wanted to produce a short article to publish in an online forum for atheists with the intention of persuading the audience to consider embracing his or her religion, there are many ways to go about doing that. What follows is probably not the best option.

"As a devout Christian, I feel sorry for anyone who has not accepted Jesus into his or her heart. I'd like to welcome you to consider this passage from Genesis 4:7. 'If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.'" Any communication given towards that audience that, like this hypothetical example, uses the Bible as its primary source of not only evidence but words, is unlikely to succeed, no matter how well intentioned it might be. Consider the audience. These people are probably unlikely to be convinced in the first place. But doing so by assuming that their interest in biblical verses will bring them to the other side of the argument is just not going to work.

It's a daunting task for any writer. But here's a post that might come closer to success, whatever that means. "I feel bad that the love I feel for Jesus isn't a part of everyone's life. I understand that there's no way to prove anything about faith, but that's not the point. I'd welcome anyone's invitation to share a discussion about what faith means to me, and how I might be able to help others share in it."

Here, our hypothetical online missionary is doing more to conform to not only the rhetorical expectations of the audience, but the stylistic ones as well. Rather than taking a superior stance, in this version, we open with an explanation as to why the writer feels bad and end with an invitation to share and discuss, rather than preaching, which, let's be honest, is what the first version did. These three sentences are trying to engage with the audience on a more personal level, which is what the audience is more likely to respond to. This in turn makes the text's purpose more likely to be successful, though I'd still say it's got a rhetorically challenging situation in hand.

Or, to consider a different sort of audience, if a student in an introductory creative writing class was assigned to write a piece of constructive criticism of one of his classmate's short stories, there are many ways to engage with that audience. Here's one way not to. "What the heck was that? Mr. Cabrillo said we weren't supposed to be writing genre fiction, but you put vampires, werewolves, mermaids, and robots? Heck, if I thought I would have gotten away with that, I could have written a much better version of this story. But no, I had to write about a boy and a girl on a boat in a lake. Anyway, I didn't like your story."

Even if you've never been in a creative writing workshop, you could probably tell that the intended audience-- in this case, the writer's classmate and the professor-- isn't likely to respond well to this tone and stance. It's generally uncommon for responders to creative work to be so aggressive or to offer no constructive criticism as feedback. If, however, the response was something like this-- "I thought your story was an interesting take on the vampire-werewolf-mermaid-robot genre, though I was under the impression that we weren't supposed to be writing genre fiction. Anyway, I thought there were some potential in this draft, though the next time you might want to limit the number, or scope, of your characters."

This would be much more likely to be well received by both parts of the audience. The writer whose work is being responded to is more likely to take the criticism, rather than rejecting it out of hand as some kind of personal attack. And the teacher would probably be more welcoming to the tone and the stance, not to mention the word choice that's used here. So as you can see, writers who to accurately predict the needs and expectations of their audiences are more likely to achieve whatever their goals are in writing, or at least to get closer to achieving them. Which for writers is a victory all of its own.

So what did we learn today? We learned about style, and how considering both genre and intended audience is important when making decisions about style. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

  • Audience

    The reader of a text, which can be intended (targeted by the author) or unintended (not specifically targeted by the author).

  • Convention

    A standard or tradition.

  • Genre

    Broad or specific categories of writing.

  • Style

    The way a person writes, as opposed to what a person has written, including word choice, tone, and sentence structure.