I’ve seen my share of memes that rale against the misuses of there, their, and they’re, as though the only indication of effective writing is proper grammar. I do not dismiss the importance of grammar. Grammar rules are like street signs that tell readers were they are going. Style, on the other hand, is the driving technique used by the writer. We all know, some rides are more pleasant than others.
While flawless grammar does indicate a meticulous attention to detail, style reveals a writer’s thinking process. Are you unintentionally transmitting flaws in your thinking process? Let’s look at some common stylistic patterns and what they may indicate.
Vague vs Concrete: This distinction is the first lesson I share with my students. Vague writing is one of the most common problems I encounter. Vague language can be either abstract or general.
Abstract words include truth, freedom, and justice. They often refer to broad values or ideas that can be interpreted in various ways by the reader. Abstract words can create a gap between what the writer intends to say and the message the reader actually receives. An effective writer needs to define abstract ideas in concrete terms to close this gap.
General words can create a similar problem. Words can be classified from general to specific. Consider the word nature in the follow sentence: I love nature. What exactly do you love? Again, the reader can interpret general words in various ways. Choosing more specific words creates a more concrete idea and closes the gap: Nature > Plants > Trees > Oaks
The Underlying Problem: Vague writing often indicates that a writer has a habit of overgeneralizing, or doesn’t know the topic well enough to be specific.
Clichés: Simply put, a cliché is a dead metaphor that has been repeated so often that it no longer conjures a vibrant image. When you say: She has a heart of gold, you do not imagine a 14k heart polished into a radiant glow. You do not imagine something precious and rare that should be valued. Instead, you simply hear: She is kind.
Clichés are not limited to metaphorical phrases, however. Ideas can also become cliché. For instance: We hold ourselves to the highest standards. Not only is this vague (Who’s standards? What standards?), it is an idea that has been repeated so often that it no longer holds any distinction.
The Underlying Problem: The use of metaphorical or ideological clichés indicates a lack of creativity or a lack of effort. It is easier to repeat what has already been said.
Flowery Language: There is a common misconception that elevated language will make a writer sound more intelligent and more authoritative. This simply isn’t true. We are no longer living in the nineteenth century, so please don’t write for a nineteenth century audience. Flowery language includes over exaggeration like spectacularly wonderful and archaic words like heretofore.
The Underlying Problem: The use of flowery language indicates the writer is either self-indulgent or lacks self-confidence. Some writers love language so much that they sacrifice clarity for verbal gymnastics. In contrast, writers who lack confidence will use fancy words to create an illusion of intelligence and authority that they can hide behind.
Redundancy: Redundancy can refer to words and phrases, or whole ideas. The English language is full of redundant expressions like end results and basic fundamentals. Results only come at the end, and if something is basic, then it is fundamental. There is no need for two words when one will do. Redundancy can also take the form of whole ideas that the writer inserts over and over again.
Don’t confuse redundancy with repetition. Repetition is a tool that writers use to create coherence. With repetition, a writer refers back to a previous point, then develops it further. Repetition is like the careful weaving together of ideas. Redundancy is like cutting and pasting an idea throughout a document.
The Underlying Problem: Redundancy indicates a lack of self-awareness. Like a relative that tells the same story over and over again, a redundant writer doesn’t realize he’s already said that!
Lack of Transitions: Transitions can come in the form of single words or whole sentences. Writing that lacks transitions feels bumpy, even confusing. Transitions help a reader move smoothly from one idea to the next.
The Underlying Problem: When a writer fails to include smooth transitions, it can indicate a tendency to make assumptions. The writer simply assumes that the reader will follow the same chain of thinking he does. This problem increases in logic based arguments where a writer may provide an opinion and evidence for that opinion, but fails to draw the connection between the evidence and the opinion. Again, the writer simply assumes that everyone will interpret the evidence the same way he has.
All of these stylistic problems can occur in writing that is grammatically correct. Precise grammar is not an indication of clear writing. Grammar is a critical component in clear writing, but without precise thought, writing can still lack clarity.