5365: Here a style, there a style, everywhere a style style.

Topic: Think about all you’ve read in Baron, Lanham, and Williams–as well as the presentations and discussions you’ve seen. Define style (again). And, list out as many elements of style as you can. Feel free to borrow from peers’ ideas in their blogs, too. You might indicate which are hardest for your to see in your own writing.

Since the beginning of human society, style has been defined and redefined in many different ways according to many different people and has many aspects worth studying.

Waitwaitwait. Let me try again.

The problem with “style”–maybe this is just for me–is that the word is so short; despite the fact that I know better, I expect short words to have short, simple definitions.  A few weeks ago, I defined written style as the set of choices a writer makes about word choice and sentence structure in his or her writing. I’d like to keep that basic statement, fully recognizing that such a neat definition doesn’t simplify the concept in any meaningful way, and recognizing that even the words “written” and “writing” don’t necessarily imply alphabetic text.  For the sake of this point, however, let’s go with that context.

Keeping the basic statement, I’d like to complicate that definition a bit. This is still a little discursive, but it’s come down a lot in the last few drafts:

A writer’s style is “the set of affective, kairotic choices a writer makes (inherently or explicitly) about word choice and sentence structure in his or her writing; these choices are influenced in complex ways by the interaction of human free agency and  technological determinism, an interaction inherent to anything that depends on physical artifacts.”

What I have added:

  • style is affective–Style choices always have a motive, most broadly to affect someone or something. Keeping Lanham’s Analyzing Prose in mind, these motives can range from purposive to playful, creative to competitive.
  • style is kairotic–Style is highly contextual, and adaptable for the needs of the propitious moment.  There is no ‘one style,’ and even the most dominant accepted styles (the “plain” style, for example) is situational and has exceptions for every principle.
  • style choices are explicit or inherent–Sometimes choices writers make are consciously mulled over (should I use first or third person? would a longer list work here? should a passive statement be active or does it work as is?), while others just seem to happen in a situation by necessity or out of habit (status updates starting with “is,” our “default style” that is embedded and as we learn to speak, write, or perform an activity but customarily ignored as we act, (see Dilger, 2010)).
  • style choices are influenced in complex ways, etc.–As an aspect of writing or canon of rhetoric, style is not free from being tied to the material and technological constraints of its production and dissemination (see Haas, 1996).

Among other things, style is individual, cultural, contextual, material, technological, free, determined, and psychobiological.

But what about “elements of style“? Though I’m still ferreting out some dark corners of this list, here’s what I’ve got so far.  Some of these are more “qualities” than “elements” in my mind, and I’ll try to taxonomize them as such.  I’ll skip listing specific devices (like chiasmus or anaphora) for now, and stick to larger categories.

  • Elegance
  • Balance
  • Symmetry
  • Tropes
  • Schemes
  • Rhythm
  • Shape
  • Cohesion
  • Coherence
  • Emphasis
  • Concision <– sometimes a hard area for me to work toward in my own writing.
  • Correctness or Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Word Choice
  • Voice
  • Point of View
  • Metadiscourse <– sometimes a hard area for me, in that I let myself get carried away.
  • actors/characters/actions
  • opacity (quality)
  • transparency (quality)
  • ethos (quality)
  • naturalness (quality)
  • _____?

That’s the list for now; I’m hoping to grow this as I go.


Dilger, B. (2010). Beyond star flashes: The elements of Web 2.0 style. Computers and Composition, article in press.

Haas, C. (1996). Writing technology. Mahwah, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Publishers

Lanham, R. A. (2003). Analyzing prose (2nd ed.). New York, Continuum.


3 thoughts on “5365: Here a style, there a style, everywhere a style style.

  1. Good stuff, Chris. I like your emphasis on motives. I used “purposeful” to more or less convey the same idea, but I didn’t elaborate on it as you did. I wonder if “dramatistic” (from Kennth Burke) is a better choice than “affective”? Affective connotes emotion, but are all motives emotional?

    Nice way of articulating the interaction between agency and technology, too. Technology certainly constrains us, yet we still find very creative ways to exploit it (e.g., Twitter poetry).

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