What do we mean when we talk about writing style? Is such a thing even permissible in “technical” writing? Let’s take on the first question first.
The Bartish definition of writing style encompasses the words writers choose when communicating their thoughts. Of course it’s more than just words–it’s the order they use, as well as their diction, punctuation habits, range of vocabulary, emotional tone, and favorite turns of phrase. If you’ve read this blog for a while, for instance, you might already be aware of my stylistic “tics,” my habits of long dashes, personal storytelling, meandering prose, and occasionally sarcastic tone to keep the content useful and accessible. My writing style here is a text-only version of how I tend to speak, minus some extraneous cussing and with undoubtedly better grammar.
Of course that’s just my blogging style.
I’ve had to develop different styles for proposal writing, official correspondence, marketing materials, white papers, letters to Congress, and emails and blog entries for the Science Cheerleaders. Occasionally I even write fiction, though you will note that I pay my bills writing nonfiction.
If you’re a technical writer, you’ve no doubt noticed that your style has had to vary as well. The usual circumstances that affect my writing style are audience, situation, and outcome.
How your audience affects your style
Just as the person you want to communicate with greatly affects how you will speak to them, so too it will (and should) affect how you write. A personal thank-you note to a dear friend or close family member will read differently from a formal letter to a Senator you’ve never met requesting an official appointment. Why is that? One reason is simple familiarity. Unless your close relative IS a Senator, you’re unlikely to use the same casual language as you would with someone you’ve never met. Familiarity or lack thereof affects your level of formality.
Are you writing to one person or multiple? Family members? Friends? Coworkers? Members of the general public via a letter to the editor? The larger the audience, the more distant you are from them and the more general your tone needs to be. Lots of other little things about an audience can affect your writing as well, such as their average age, their political or religious affiliations, their level of education, and their gender mix. This doesn’t mean pandering, but it does mean being conscious of how you phrase things so as to ensure that your audience is receptive to your message.
How situation affects your style
After you settle on your audience, you need to consider the circumstances of what you need to write: is it good news? Bad news? A request from a stranger? A reminder of a favor? Simple information? Is the information you need to share new or familiar? Does what you say/write affect someone’s (or many someones’) job/financial security? A lot of these questions boil down to your audience’s potential reaction to the information. How you share the announcement of the early arrival of an expected bonus will be quite different from how you announce an unexpected layoff.
How your intended outcome affects your style
“Outcome” is simply how you want your audience to react after receiving the information you impart. Maybe you just want them to be aware. Maybe you need them to check a box or fill out a form. Maybe you want them excited and happy (easier when it’s a bonus). Maybe you want them calm and receptive (tougher when it’s a layoff). Maybe you want them angry/outraged and ready to take action.
How audience, situation, and outcome combine to affect style
Okay, so now you can see how the circumstances of a piece of communication will greatly affect what and how you write:
- A short thank-you note to your parents for taking you to dinner can be as warm and fuzzy as you like because you want them to come away from the note with a good feeling.
- An engineering proposal to a government agency is going to be a lot more formal but can include more dynamic language about your product or service to get your potential customer interested in buying it.
- A speech announcing a massive company layoff is going to be carefully worded to explain the how and why while requesting calm and professionalism and expressing sadness and inevitability: you don’t want to sound so sad that people come back with, “If you’re so sad about it, why are you letting us go?”
- A letter to a member of Congress/Parliament making a specific request of the government is going to be polite, formal, and deferential without being too obsequious.
And so forth. Time and experience–and the input of others–will help you shape your communication outputs to ensure that you use the right words to achieve the ends you desire. The more writing situations you have the chance to encounter, the better you will know and use those words that make for effective professional and technical communication.