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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English


Style Part I

What is a style of writing?

Actually, this is two separate things. One is what you write, and the other is how you write it. Combined, these two types of style are what makes the work of one writer immediately distinct and individual.

However, style can also be used to make a writer completely anonymous as is the case with certain newspapers and journals which use strict rules of style to ensure that all contributions to an edition appear to have a single author. Even in such cases the 'house style' of the journal is individual and immediately recognizable.

Why is style important?

English is a very flexible language with a huge vocabulary, and very many ways of saying the same thing. Bad style can make even a dramatic event appear mundane and boring, while good style can make even mundane events lively and engaging. You might choose a book for the content, the plot or the characterization, but unless the individual sentences are written in an agreeable style you will soon stop reading.

Likewise, with your own writing, even in letters and emails, your style says a lot about you, for example whether you are disciplined, educated and intelligent or not!

Style and consistency

Many institutions have a 'house style' because once a reader is used to something being expressed one way, it is annoying when variations are used. For example, if American spelling is used in a text, then American spelling should be used throughout. 'Changing the tyres is hard labor.' shows inconsistency, and annoys readers.

Likewise do not write '0.50' in one sentence, '50p' in the next and 'fifty pence' in the third. It makes the reader work harder than necessary to understand you, which is a capital offence against good style. Most style guides (these are available in most bookshops) show acceptable ways of writing such terms, but the important thing is that whatever style you use stick to it!


This is an aspect of style we have addressed earlier. It means adjusting your language and vocabulary to suit the situation and audience.

'Hey Reg, I'm short 50 quid this month. How about a loan?' This might work with a good friend, but it will not impress your boss or bank manager.

Getting the right register is important in presentations or guides (such as this one), or in descriptions such as you might find in brochures. In such cases the writer needs to present complex information without the writing either appearing stuffy and unapproachable or 'dumbed-down' and condescending.

To see the an example of the importance of register in context, look at the science section of your favourite news journal. Often the report of a scientific discovery references the original paper. If you find that original paper, you will note that the style used by an academic or scientist to address his colleagues is very different to that which a journalist used to address the general public, even though much of the information given should be the same.


The essence of style is to pass information and feelings from the writer's mind to the minds of the readers. The more that a writer can do this without the words getting in the way, the more fluently the text has been written.

A writer with good style automatically starts a paragraph with the most effective sentence and uses the following sentences to flesh out the idea. Rather than throw a thesaurus of adjectives at an idea, a good writer chooses a few precise words that exactly say what he means. Analogies and similes are used sparingly and if really effective, the reader hardly notices that they have been used because they are so appropriate.

Fluent writing often involves careful editing to eliminate redundancies, repetition and incoherence. Sentences are shaped so that subordinate clauses add meaning rather than introduce new ideas or distractions. The opposite to fluent writing is the 'brain dump' found notoriously in many student essays, in which the writer puts down prose as it occurs to him.

Here are two examples. Each gives the same information, but the vocabulary and organization are different:

Because it was a New world and not the old World people had to think differently so the middle Ages finished because of civilization's new thinking. It was like coming out of a rut. That's why someone who was really important was Christopher Columbus, even though he did not mean to discover America really. Just because he didn't mean it doesn't mean it wasn't important.

Christopher Columbus changed the world as few others have done. That he discovered the Americas by accident matters far less than that he discovered them at all. The existence of a New World changed how people saw the old one, and so jolted western civilization out of the rut of the Middle Ages.

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