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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Five elements of writing with style and personality

by Stephen Wilbers

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

I also discuss these five elements in detail in Keys to Great Writing.


What are the elements of style?

What are the essential features of polished writing? What traits or characteristics of language distinguish accomplished writing from merely competent writing?

If I could teach only five elements of style, I would select these:

1. Economy of language.

Treat every word as precious. When readers encounter writing in which every word counts, they are more alert to its meaning and more attentive to its sound.

You can achieve economy of language by using three techniques: Avoid wordy phrases (change “until such time as” to “until”), omit meaningless modifiers (change “general consensus” to “consensus”), and prefer action verbs to nouns (change “take under consideration” to “consider”). Each technique enables you to say the same thing in fewer words, and – as a general rule – more concise writing is more emphatic writing.

Concise writing doesn’t require that you make every sentence short, but that you make every word count.

2. Precise word choice and colorful vocabulary.

Use the best, most exact word to capture your meaning. Readers judge your style by your adeptness and agility in matching language to thought.

Change “His performance will affect our image” to “His carelessness will undermine our credibility.” Convey your disapproval of meaningless modifiers by describing them not as “qualifiers that weaken our language” but – as E. B. White does in “The Elements of Style” – as “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

3. Specific, concrete, vivid detail.

As Joseph Conrad advises, don’t tell your reader; show your reader.

Don’t just tell your reader, “Susan works hard”; show your reader: “Last month Susan came in at 6:00 a.m. every day to help complete the internal audit on time.” Don’t just tell your reader, “Morale is declining”; show your reader: “This year grievances increased by 14%, and employee turnover by 8%.”

Precise language and vivid detail go hand­in­hand.

4. Pleasing sound, rhythm, and variety.

Attend to sound as well as substance. Create rhythm and emphasis by balancing the components of your sentence, as Samuel Johnson did when he wrote, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

Enliven your style by varying the length and structure of your sentences: “For particular emphasis, follow a long sentence with a short sentence, or even a fragment. Like this.”

It’s not just what you say, it’s how emphatically, beautifully, and memorably you say it.

5. Discernable voice, tone, or point of view.

Write with personality. As Patricia Westheimer advises in The Executive Style Book, in all but the most formal writing, “Write the way you speak – conversationally and naturally.”

Change “It is imperative that we commence now” to “Let’s get started.” Change “Attached please find your budget worksheets” to “Well, it’s your favorite time of year again.”

In forming an opinion of your style, your readers react to the person they perceive behind the words – your character, personality, individuality, and sense of humor – as much as to the words themselves.

Now that I have identified five elements of style, you might ask, why does style matter? Why don’t we settle for clarity and correctness?

In its broadest sense, style is the writer’s ability to manage language in a way that produces a desired effect and that elicits from the reader a desired response. In this way, style enables writer and reader to connect.

In business writing, style is the writer’s ability to create a desired impression, not only of the writer but also of the writer’s company or organization. In business writing, style has special significance: It conveys image.

That’s why style is so important.




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