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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Style & Personality: A Checklist

Adapted from Keys to Great Writing

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see editing checklist & writing checklist.


 1. WORD CHOICE: Diction


  Make every word count / avoid wordiness (write during rather than during the course of, and until rather than until such time as).

  Avoid unnecessary modifiers (write fact rather than true fact, and gift rather than free gift).


  Use natural language as opposed to needlessly formal, fancy, or awkward language (as in As we discussed rather than As per our discussion, and We need to start on time rather than It is imperative that we commence in a timely fashion).


  Choose words for their sound, mood, and feeling (their connotation) as well as their literal meaning (their denotation).


  Use words that appeal to the five senses.


  Prefer action verbs over the noun forms of verbs or nominalizations (write recommend rather than make a recommendation, and consider rather than take under consideration).


  Draw on a broad vocabulary to use the most precise, appropriate words for your meaning and audience (often the simplest, not the fanciest, word).



      2. SELECTION OF DETAIL: Support


  Provide vivid, colorful, unusual, and surprising detail that appeals to the senses.


  Provide factual detail that appeals to logic.


  Prefer the concrete and the particular over the abstract and the general.


  Use references and quotations to reinforce your point and support your argument.



      3. SENTENCE STRUCTURE: Variety in length, structure, rhythm, and type


  Vary your sentence structure to create emphasis and energy.


  Use subordinate elements to indicate relationships, control emphasis, and create variety.


  Use punctuation to create pauses and emphasis:


  Use dashes to create abrupt pauses and emphasis.


  Use colons to create pauses and anticipation.


  Use semicolons to suggest a close relationship between two statements.


  Place important words at sentence endings for “VIP emphasis.”


  Use sentence inversions (anastrophe) for variety and emphasis.


  Use ellipses (. . .) for economy and cadence.


  Use repetition for emphasis and rhythm:


  Repeat words in sentence beginnings (anaphora).


  Create a succession of short sentences.


  Place a short, punchy sentence after a longer, more complex sentence for variety and emphasis.


  Use sentence fragments for a conversational style and for emphasis.


  Use all four rhetorical sentence types:


  Use loose sentences (those in which subordinate elements follow the main clause) for a relaxed structure.


  Use periodic sentences (those in which subordinate elements precede the main clause) for emphasis, expectancy, and flourish.


  Use balanced sentences (those which contain parallel elements–also called coordinated and parallel sentences) for emphasis and rhythm.


  Use antithetical sentences (those with contrasting elements, often in parallel structure) for emphasis and contrast.

   4. CREATIVITY AND IMAGINATION:  Comparison, Analogy, and Metaphor

  Use figurative (or non-literal) language to appeal to your reader’s creativity and imagination.


  Use comparisons and analogies to clarify or reinforce your meaning.


  Use metaphors to point out similarity between dissimilar things.


  Use similes (comparisons using like or as) for a more conscious, calculated effect (He works like a horse); use metaphors (comparisons not using like or as) for a more insistent, surprising effect (He is a horse).


  Make unlikely comparisons to surprise your reader and convey your originality.


  Evaluate your similes and metaphors on the basis of their aptness, novelty, and simplicity.



      5. POINT OF VIEW: Tone, Attitude, and Humor


  Assume a definite point of view to let your reader know where you stand.


  Adopt a persona (or create an image of yourself) that is engaging, interesting, mysterious, intriguing, lively, irreverent, studious, or off-beat.


  Be playful or use a light-hearted tone to appeal to your reader’s sense of humor and intelligence.


  Use wit (from the Old English witan, “to know”) to create a comic twist or surprise, as Peter De Vries did when he said, “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paper­work.”


  Use puns (plays on words) advisedly–not everyone appreciates them.


  Use situational irony to convey the disparity between perception and reality.


  Use verbal irony (Socratic irony)–which often involves saying the opposite of what you mean–to convey the disparity between literal and implied meaning.


  Use understatement (meiosis) for a more subtle style of humor.


  Use overstatement (exaggeration or hyper­bole) for a more outlandish style of humor.


  Use self-deprecating humor to poke fun at yourself.


  Use ridicule and sarcasm to disparage or make fun of others (but consider the ethical implications of doing so).




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