I have been told time and again by instructors that my papers are lacking style, but I have no idea how to fix that. If style is showcasing your personality in writing, then I am clueless as to how I can do so in a boring, structured essay. How can I improve my style without changing who I am?
Dear Literally Confused,
You are absolutely correct that a writer’s style is an outlet to display personality. However, you should never compromise your personality in order to write a structured academic essay. In fact, personality is only one of many aspects of style. By improving on these other aspects of style, you can progress as a writer while staying true to your character.
When you are analyzing your style during the writing process, the first place to start is with the individual words you include in your essay. Avoid wordiness. Be completely direct in what you are saying, rather than beating around the bush and prolonging your actual message. You should only include words that are essential to the essay’s meaning. Never over-embellish or add “fluff” to an essay just to meet a word requirement. Likewise, you should never use words that you are not familiar with just to sound intelligent. A wise professor once told me to imagine that for every word in an essay I have to pay my instructor a dollar. If this were true, you would not want to add one more word than necessary to get your point across!
Another way to improve your style is by evaluating your sentence structure. Regulate your verb placement by using the active voice, so that you will sound more assertive. You should also use various sentence lengths; make sure you have a well-blended assortment of the different types of sentences. Use transitions so your sentences flow together seamlessly. In doing so, you will be in control of your voice and be able to use it to shape your sentences towards the overall style you wish to convey.
Your final point of analysis when dealing with style is tone and voice. Since tone deals with the way you write, your personality will shine here. However, it is important to fit your tone toward your genre. If you have a fun, bubbly personality you should not disregard your normal behavior and adopt a completely technical, dry style. You can use descriptive words and expressive language, especially in narratives and descriptive essays. However, in more scientific writing, you may want to be more subtle so your writing is not completely unfitting for the academic world. It is also important to tailor your tone toward your audience. If you are writing an essay for a group of elementary school kids, it will need to sound much different than if you were to write a dissertation for your doctorate. Feel free to get a second opinion regarding your style or other aspects of writing by visiting the Writing Fellows in the Bradner Library.