by Joelle Steele

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After editing for almost 30 years, I have learned a lot and I have seen a lot. One thing I noticed starting around the mid-1990s was a growing tendency for many writers to pass off their less than adequate writing skills under the guise of a writing "style." Well, let me tell you this: a "writing style" is something entirely different than a lack of command over the English language. Having a style should never be confused with incorporating into your writing the elements of poor grammar, misspellings, lousy punctuation, or — my very special pet peeve — bad syntax.

So what exactly is a writing style? Simply put, it's the way you communicate within the basic structure of your language that distinguishes your writing from everyone else's. This means that there is a lot of room for developing your own very unique style. Your personality can be portrayed in your writing to reflect your clever wit, angry discontent, insouciance, grave concern, activism, and any other number of character traits you happen to possess. You may also choose to pepper your writing with words or expressions that specifically characterize your personality or that reflect the local color of your dialect. You may write with a pronounced literary stance, dressing up your books or articles with a host of adjectives that are carefully selected to paint a vivid picture of whatever it is that you are trying to say. And if you are the academic or intellectual type, your works may be replete with words that rarely find their way into the vernacular.

Then we have slang or jargon, the specialized vocabulary of very informal words and expressions that come in and out of popularity with equal rapidity, coloring our speech for short periods of time. Those too can be part of a writing style. Some writers make use of metaphor and simile with great skill. Some rely on a lot of famous quotes. Some flaunt a carefully crafted analogy throughout whatever they write. The list of things that characterize a writing style is virtually limitless.

The only thing that does not characterize a writing style is bad English. I used to cringe every time I got an editing project that was littered with dashes where there should be commas, commas where there should be semi-colons, etc. These forms of punctuation are guidelines for the reader. They each mean something different. I also went nuts with run-on sentences, improper use of the ellipsis (those three little dots in a row), misused words and expressions, mixed metaphors, and the use of "that" when it should be "who" or "it's" when it should be "its." The list goes on and on ... and on. Add to those the plethora of syntactical errors — the incorrect ordering of the words and expressions in a sentence — and I just about wanted to S-C-R-E-A-M!

Everyone is at a different skill level when it comes to writing, and everyone has his or her own special writing style. But every writer is the same when it comes to wanting to be understood. After all, writing is a way of communicating with the reader. To that end, writers absolutely must learn to use language properly, if for no other reason than as a courtesy to their readers, so that their messages come across loud and clear with no room for misinterpretation. And in the process, writers can demonstrate the uniqueness of their writing style by incorporating a variety of style traits into their language. In that way, their writing will be enhanced in whatever fashion best attracts readers to their words, and those readers will come to recognize each writer for his or her very distinctive writing style.

This article last updated: 07/14/2011.