12 Different Styles of Writing and How to Write Them Well
Being a good all-round writer means mastering a host of different skills.
Most people can manage a couple of different types of writing well, but struggle when it comes to others; perhaps they have the ready humour and sense of timing that’s required for a good speech, but can’t organise their thoughts coherently enough for a business report. Perhaps they have the imagination and flair for beautiful prose, but come unstuck when required to operate within the tighter confines of producing marketing copy. Or perhaps they can write a fantastic academic essay, but can’t write in a way that’s accessible to a less informed audience.
There are some rules of writing that apply for almost any purpose, such as considering your audience; varying your sentence length; and taking time to think about whether sesquipedalian verbiage is more appropriate or if it would be better to use nice short words. But it’s just as often the case that what’s right for one form of writing is wrong for another. For instance, in business writing, your chief aim is to make yourself understood as quickly and efficiently as possible, on the assumption that your writing will be read at speed by people with lots of other important things to do. Your prose doesn’t have to thrill them; it just needs to make its point as clearly as possible, preferably at a glance. Nearly the opposite is true for poetry, where it’s reasonable to assume your reader is happy to spend some time unravelling an obscured meaning, and saying exactly what you mean in as few words as possible somewhat defeats the point.
Here’s a look at some of the most common writing types and what you need to do in order to write them well.
1. Business writing
In some ways, business writing is the easiest kind of writing. It shouldn’t be written with charm or style or flair, and if there are any jokes, beautiful imagery or elegant, haunting metaphors in there, then you’re doing it wrong. It needs to use simple, easily understood language to get straight to the point. And if you can make that point in a single page where others might have required two, so much the better.
But of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Being concise and clear are two of the hardest skills to learn in writing, especially if you’re used to padding school and university assignments with extra words to get up to the word count. Try doing the opposite and setting yourself a lower word count so that you’re obliged to trim the excess, leaving you with something concise and easily readable.
2. Academic essays
Academic essays should be a lot like business writing, prioritising conciseness and clarity. But a typical academic essay is longer than a business report, so you have to know how best to fill that space. The best essays take a single idea, explain it and consider it from all angles, but if your idea is too thin to fill the space, it’s tempting to fall back on padding with extra words or going off on tangents that would be better explored as essays on their own.
It’s also tempting to resort to excessively complicated sentences and long words to show off that you can use them (and lots of prestigious academics who should know better do just that). But it’s better to keep things simple where possible and let them be complex only when they need to be. It’s helpful to say “pseudo-kyriarchal dystopia” if the ‘simpler’ alternative takes three times as long, but there’s no need to say that “Brown’s expostulation is…” when you could just refer to his “argument”.
More so than either business or academic writing, journalism has to combine being informative with being engaging. The exact ratio of information provision to entertainment will depend on the newspaper, but while it’s fine for a business report or academic paper to be dull to anyone who isn’t interested in the specific subject, a good journalistic piece should find a point of interest even for readers who don’t care much about the topic.
That might mean finding a human interest story – “elderly man injured by dangerous pothole” with a sympathetic photo is more engaging than “dangerous potholes on the High Street”. Alternatively, it could mean finding a way to make the story relevant to a greater number of readers, such as “High Street potholes causing rush hour delays across the town”. Sticking to the facts but making them interesting, often on a limited word count, is a key skill for a journalist.
4. Letters to the editor
The art of responding to something that you’ve read in a newspaper is a very specific one. You’re probably writing it in a flood of anger, but getting it published requires a different approach. A letters page, like every other part of the newspaper, needs to be interesting to read, so having a thought-provoking or original point to make is a good start. Using humour where you can is even better.
A letter to the editor has two audiences: the newspaper’s editor, who wants something interesting that’s not wildly out of step with the paper’s overall voice, that hasn’t been printed in three other places, and that doesn’t need too much editing to make it readable; and the newspaper’s readers, who want to be surprised, amused, educated or entertained. It’s important to keep both of these audiences in mind. And always keep it short.
5. Marketing copy
Marketing copy can range from a two-word tagline to a 60-page brochure and everything in between, but it all shares the same purpose: to sell something, or at least to encourage someone to take actions that might ultimately result in selling something. It’s arguably a form of persuasive writing, but that’s where some writers go wrong. There’s a danger of sounding like a cliché of a travelling salesman in the 1950s – “try our very best supreme sausages just like you used to enjoy as a child, cheaper and better than all competitors” – which might have worked for the 1950s salesman but doesn’t work now.
Instead, much of modern marketing copy is about creating and reinforcing a brand, whether that’s Ryanair’s brash cheap-and-cheerful approach or Marks & Spencer’s reliable luxury. Tone is as important as content: “our very best supreme sausages” might not sell, but “finest Gloucester Old Spot pork sausages with a hint of apple” might do, and so might “traditional bangers and mash” – as long as you’ve found the right audience for them.
‘Prose’ is a very small word to cover a huge range of different types of writing, from Tolkien’s Silmarillion to the saddest six-word short story, misquoted as being by Ernest Hemingway, of “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The purpose of prose is usually to tell a story of some description, usually but not always with a beginning, middle and end (even the “Baby shoes” story has those, implicitly).
The length and style of what you write will vary: a thriller usually has snappy sentences and lots of quick-fire dialogue, while a coming-of-age story might include stream-of-consciousness passages, and a fantasy novel lavish descriptions of settings and people. What’s important is to write in a style that’s consistent with the story you’re telling; if you’re trying to make us believe in a naive, romantic young man who’s fallen hopelessly in love, describing the object of his affections simply as “pretty” probably won’t cut it.
Trying to define poetry is an impossible task, but broadly speaking it’s writing that aims to put a concept, emotion or idea into words without consideration for the usual grammatical, structural or syntactical rules of prose writing. It doesn’t have to rhyme but it’s more than just prose with unexpected line breaks; ideally, it expresses more than might have been expressed by its equivalent in prose.
Even the worst poetry broadly follows these rules; greetings cards have horrendous verse in them because “happy birthday” or “congratulations on your wedding” feels insufficient to the message that needs expressing, so we use poetry instead. Writing a good poem depends on having an idea that you want to express through poetry – or you just end up with prose that has some awkward rhymes and odd line breaks instead.
Diaries are usually not written for publication (though they are usually edited first), which is what makes them so enjoyable to read. They provide an insight into ordinary life and the experiences of others that we’re usually denied – for instance, Pepys’ diaries of his life in Restoration London are enjoyable not only because they have so much to tell us about that period in history, but also because we learn about Pepys’ endearing flaws as a human being. One example is his recurring vow to himself to gamble less, followed by an entry a couple of days later about his gambling.
If your diaries are not likely to be read in hundreds of years’ time, think about what might make them unique and interesting now. That might be an unusual perspective on current affairs, or an authentic emotional honesty.
A memoir is a little like a diary in that it’s the story of a part of a person’s life, but while a diary was written at the time without the intent of publication, a memoir is written looking back on events. It might focus on a particular topic, such as a food memoir or a travel memoir, or range more generally over the person’s experiences.
A good memoir might not be completely accurate, instead reflecting how the writer remembers events personally. Unlike standard prose, lots of dialogue in a memoir can break your reader’s suspension of disbelief, because it might not seem plausible that you could remember what was said at a particular time word-for-word. Instead, including details that are more memorable gives the reader a sense of sharing those experiences as if they were really there.
Writing a script is really the opening salvo in a collaboration between the writer, the director, the actors and everyone else involved in a film or theatrical production. It’s a blueprint rather than a finished product, as it should give everyone else involved in the collaboration enough of a structure to work from, without dictating so much to them that they can’t exercise their own creativity to the betterment of the overall project.
That means that a script should be dominated by dialogue, with any directions or description kept to the minimum needed to convey the plot. Writing vibrant dialogue that brings the characters to life is the essential part of script-writing.
A speech might be persuasive (for instance, asking people to vote for a particular political candidate) or entertaining (such as the best man’s speech at a wedding), but above all it needs to keep to the allotted time and be engaging. In most forms of writing, you are at a remove from your audience – the journalist doesn’t normally know which parts of their article made readers yawn – but when someone is delivering a speech you wrote, the feedback is immediate.
That means making the content of the speech as interesting as possible and using rhetorical devices to keep your audience’s attention. Jokes, too, can be useful in most speeches, even serious ones.
A eulogy is a speech or piece of writing in tribute to someone who has died. It has overlaps with other speeches and with memoirs, but also has its own traditions and rules. There are clichés that are best avoided, such as “we are gathered here today…” and phrases that could be said of anyone, such as “she always tried to do her best”.
The best eulogies evoke the person who has died in the best possible light, not shying away entirely from their flaws, but remembering them as a full and rounded human being who is much missed. The significant details of their life should be mentioned, anecdotes that sum them up as a person related, and parts of the eulogy can be addressed to the person who’s died as well – for instance, to say thank you.
Images: businessman with notepad; students in library; reporter; writing a letter; woman writing copy; poetry book; diary and pencil; elderly gentleman; stage; speech; notebook with pencil shavings; man writing prose; person with watch writing; laptop keyboard
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