The #1 Misconception About Writing Style


There’s a common misconception about writing style that needs to be addressed before we can talk about writing structure.

Once we clear this up, I promise that it will change the way you approach the activity of writing and your own writing projects.

What’s this misconception? It’s the misconception promoted by so-called “style” guides, that are basically compilations of accepted conventions for grammar, sentence structure, usage rules, and formatting and citation rules. Anyone who does a lot of writing as part of their job will eventually come across these, and most writers will have more than one style guide on their book shelf.

There’s nothing wrong with these, if you need to look up usage conventions, like how to write numbers and dates, or how to cite sources in footnotes, these are very handy.

But they do promote a common misconception, which really has two parts.

First, they promote the misconception that there are really only two kinds of style — good and bad — and what it means to write with proper style is to conform to the usage rules in books like these.

And second, they promote the misconception that what a writing style is, is defined by the list of surface elements that constitute the proper usage conventions. By “surface elements” I mean the actual arrangement of words and sentences and paragraphs on the page.

I’m saying that it’s a mistake to think about style in this way.

Now, I say that these are misconceptions, but what else could a writing style be, if not a certain way of arranging words, sentences and paragraphs on the page?

A more useful way to think about it is like this: the surface elements of a writing style are derived from a deeper level.

This deeper level represents a stance, a series of decisions about a number of fundamental questions about the author, the author’s audience, their relationships, and the broader goals of the writing enterprise.

What counts as successful or unsuccessful writing is defined relative to a particular conceptual stance. And because there can be more than one stance on these fundamental questions, there can be more than one writing style, each with its own standards for success.

In other words, the situation looks more like this. There can be a plurality of distinct writing styles, each derived from a different conceptual stance, and each with its own criteria for success or failure.

In the next set of videos I’m going to go over some of these different writing styles and the conceptual stances that ground them, but I want to finish with what I think this the most important point from the perspective of students hoping to improve their writing by looking to style guides.

The point is this. The standard academic style guides, like Strunk and White, are not guides for good writing in general. They’re guides that codify certain surface conventions associated with a particular writing style, one that we’re going to elaborate on in later videos.

But these guides don’t talk about the underlying conceptual stance that motivates the conventions, and so they create the illusion that there there are really only two kinds of writing, good writing and bad writing, and good writing consists in following the rules outlined in these guides.

This is a very damaging misconception. Blindly following a style guide can lead to very bad writing when there’s a mismatch between the guidelines and the deeper communicative goals that motivate the writing.

An analogy can be drawn here between writing styles and style guides, and debates about what constitutes correct or incorrect grammar in natural language.

In English, for example, schools will commonly teach children that an expression like “that ain’t nobody’s business” isn’t proper English.

But linguists will tell you that there are dozens of distinct dialects of English even with the United States, and there is no natural basis for saying that one dialect is normatively correct while others are not. Each of these dialects has an internally consistent grammar and usage rules.

What we have, rather, are cultural histories that associate certain dialects with socio-economic status, and because of that they acquire normative status — the culture treats certain dialects as normative, and others as deviations from these norms.

Norms for good and bad writing have a cultural history as well. I’m not saying that no distinction can be made between good writing and bad writing. What I’m saying is that the reasons why certain norms dominate discussions of good writing have little to do with good writing per se, and much more to do with social and cultural forces that privilege certain kinds of writing over others, just as there are social and cultural forces that privilege certain kinds of English dialects over others.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think it helps to make a point.