3 Ways to Focus on Style not Content

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It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It

There is a strong— no huge— pull in the academic writer toward the content and meaning of what they are trying to say, and often times style gets left in behind.

You want to say what you want to say, get it right, get it just so. So you choose the words that fit what you are tying to say the best, right?

And that might be best when we are trying to keep moving through our drafts and our arguments. It might be too much to process and care about and worry about if we are juggling both content and style.

So at the risk of summoning more self-critical demons, let’s make a conscious effort to bring style back in the picture. What I am pointing to here is not another thing to worry about but something you can actually enjoy in at a few small moments of word-play.

A few interruptions of our habits and ruts, however brief, are interruptions of a long habitual process and so therefore are relevant far beyond the small moment of time in which they take place.


Here’s 3 to try right away:

Write Big Long Sentences:

Now you might not think that writing long sentences for the academic writer is a pattern interrupt. I get that.

So no, that does not mean what it usually means: stuff all your thoughts into your word processor, writing sentences from the middle out to either end in tiny single spaced font so that you can see all the moving parts and phrases at once and know that they are down there and, technically speaking (were this to go to trial with a lawyer and all that) can be proven to be meaningfully connected.

You can write a beautiful long sentence for a purpose:

It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.

Joan Didion, Slouching toward Bethlehem

     What a haunting way to write about haunting.

Or you write a long sentence just because you can:

Look at this very abstract, though Eurocentric, thought from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Every once in a while make the conscious decision to write a long sentence. This is different than the habitual way. If you have long gangly sentences in your writing already, springing up as you try to say what you are trying to say. Something else puts a break in the habit.

Make a nice long sentence on purpose.

Just the attempt to do that wakes us up to remember “Oh yeah, it’s not just what I say it’s how I say.” Do it as a game, an exercise, a warm-up. I think you’ll see a big difference between the unconscious long sentence and the conscious one.

A great exercise to really inhabit the beauty of such sentences and bring them into our natural prose is described in our third free eBook Learning from the Masters from the Inside Out. Sign up for our email list if you haven’t got that book yet and you’ll get it free.

Write Short

Doing this on purpose is almost always a good idea for the academic writer. It’s a quick stop on the forgetting-about-form train. There are few short sentences in academic writing. They are not hard to write, but we seldom think of it because there’s no real functional need for them in order to say what we are trying to say. So we don’t use them. Yet the rhythmic break is perhaps the easiest way to gain a sense of engagement from the reader. But don’t over do it. Ok? Good.

Use Lyrical Wording

This is a simple game: use alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyming as a conscious decision. Now this might not do when you are doing your best to get straight and clear what you are trying to say, but it’s certainly something that it pays to play with. Try writing your key ideas, concepts and innovations using rhyme, alliteration and assonance—it might actually work as a brainstorming technique or as a way to make a few jokes to yourself. You’ll find that it spontaneously and naturally arises later in your writing if you tap into it now and then.

Basically, what we are looking at here is just a simple mindset shift.

We can get into ruts. All of us do. Break it up and play with words and sentences from time to time: on purpose. That makes it a pattern interrupt. It’s actually great fuel for our writing momentum but most importantly, it’s a way to remind ourselves of something it’s easy to lose sight of in the overwhelming emphasis in academic writing on content.

Interrupt that loop, in yourself and others.

You’ll thank yourself now, and your readers will thank you later.


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