The Writing Center

Study of Style: How to Get More Variety in Your Writing

Many people think style is something subjective, but Edward P.J. Corbett in his book Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student shows us how to analyze style in order to enhance variety (which most of us find more interesting to read).


Do you use more of any one of these types of words?

  • General or specific
    • Company is a general noun, but Apple or Google is a specific company; if you use mostly general nouns, your readers will struggle with imagining what you mean, and if you use too many specific words, your readers will get overwhelmed with details.  Read over your writing for a good balance of both.
  • Abstract or concrete
    • Love is an abstract noun:  you cannot go somewhere and buy love or carry it—it is a label we give to a specific set of behaviors and feelings.  Taking your nephew for ice cream at Malley’s is a concrete manifestation of love.  If you use too many abstract nouns, your readers will struggle to figure out what you mean.
  • Latinate (polysyllabic) or Anglo-Saxon (monosyllabic)
    • Think of the places where you put the following animals:  fish, birds, and bees.  I bet you think fish tank, bird cage, and beehive.  If you did, you just used Anglo-Saxon terms that are 1-syllable long.  Think of these alternatives:  aquarium, aviary, and apiary.  Those words have what linguists call liquids (-l’s and –r’s) that make them sound beautiful; they are also polysyllabic. 
  • Jargon or common terms
    • If you have ever bought a computer, you know that if you walk in without knowing exactly what you want, you risk having the sales person use jargon and perhaps sell you a computer that is too expensive!  Jargon is an excellent choice when you are writing as one expert to another.  Common words are a good choice if your reader does not understand the subject matter.  You want to cultivate the jargon of your major as you write in college.  In grant writing, you might want to use more general words if the reader does not know your area.
  • Denotative or connotative
    • Denotative refers to the dictionary meaning:  mother in the dictionary is a female parent, that is it!  Connotative meaning is the emotional content a word carries.  When a writer uses a term with too much emotional content, readers will be confused because it has multiple meanings. 

Sentence Types

Structural Type:  Do you use too much of one of these?

  • simple sentence (subject verb object)
  • compound sentence (two full sentences with a coordinating conjunction)
  • compound-complex (same as above, but one of the full sentences has a clause)
  • complex (a clause in with a full sentence)

In the last fifty years, writers in business have preferred simple sentences, but in the academic world, that choice limits your sentence variety.  If you want to increase your sentence types, try reading materials like high-end magazines ($8 at Borders) in your hobbies. 

Rhetorical Type:

  • Loose, Balanced, Periodic, Antithetical

A loose sentence has no planned influence on a reader.  A balanced sentence has parallel structure (e.g., “I came, I saw, I conquered.”).  Parallel structure is important to learn because it sounds great.  Periodic means the sentence sweeps to a conclusion for an effect (we might do one when telling a joke).  We all create antithetical sentences when we put an argument in a sentence with a contrast word like despite, however, even though, yet and other expressions that create a clash.

Functional Type:

  • Statement, Question, Command, Exclamation

Most academic writers use only the first two. 

Sentence Length

Take a look at a page of your writing and see whether your sentences are all about the same length:  if so, you might want to try creating shorter ones.  Variety creates faster and more pleasant reading.

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