The Ultimate Guide to Learning Writing: Styles

Writing Styles: How to Write It All

Political speeches, travel guides, recipes, fantasy novels - all are written works created with specific, and yes, widely varied purposes. And despite the existence of an almost intimidating range of writing, we can actually classify written works in four main writing styles: expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. Think of these styles as four general purposes that lead someone to write a piece - and because different pieces have different purposes, each style has its own distinct characteristics.

If you’re going to an evening gala, you will definitely not be wearing the sweats you just watched Netflix in (although you may wish you could). You make different choices based on the goal and impression you want to make - and the same goes for writing styles. These choices, however, are not mutually exclusive. As you may want to wear shoes that are both fashionable and comfortable, you can also write a piece that is both descriptive and narrative.

In this guide, you will learn:

  • The characteristics of the four main writing styles: expository, descriptive, persuasive, narrative
  • When to use each writing style
  • How to write in each writing style

Types of Writing: Purpose Equals Connection

How can learning how to apply different writing styles help you as a writer?

Everyone has preferred ways of writing, and some writing styles may come more naturally than others. Perhaps you only write narrative short stories and poetry. Or you may write grant proposals and the occasional op-ed. However, many written pieces have various purposes, and can therefore be enriched by blending or moving in and out of writing styles. Think of this like the art of creating fusion cuisines - you can blend flavors to appeal to your readers’ diverse palates. Learning how to weave different styles into your writing will not only improve and stretch your skills as a writer, but will also allow you to make a stronger connection with your audience.

1) Expository Writing

Expository writing is ubiquitous - its goal is to inform readers by explaining or describing. It will often provide insight or instruction with regard to a particular topic, answering questions such as “Why?”, “How?”, and “What?” Common types of expository writing include news stories and magazine articles (excluding editorials), nonfiction books, guides and how-to articles, self help writing, recipes and cookbooks, textbooks and educational resources, and business, technical, and scientific writing

One key thing to note is that expository writing can often be confused with persuasive writing. While some texts can include multiple writing styles, an expository piece cannot be persuasive, and vice versa. You should write in this style if your main goal is to solely inform your reader about a specific topic without voicing opinion. Connotations of language are crucial here - when writing in an expository style, take care to use language that carries a neutral connotation.

A How-To: Key Characteristics of Expository Writing

  • Be concise and clear (especially if giving directions)
  • Organize your information in a logical order or sequence - start with an outline if helpful
  • Use transitions
  • Highlight information with quotes, illustrations, informative graphics
  • Incorporate supporting material and evidence
  • Use research and cite sources, link to additional resources and websites if writing online
  • Avoid using language that has a positive or negative connotation - don’t insert your opinion or attempt to persuade your audience to think, feel, or do something based on your beliefs

What does expository writing look like?

See articles marked “News Analysis” in The New York Times as exemplary examples of expository writing. These pieces examine important and often controversial news events, and also help the reader understand possible causes and consequences of situations without reflecting the author’s opinion.

2) Descriptive Writing

“Paint a picture with your words.” This is the classic metaphor associated with descriptive writing, especially in fiction novels, yet this style is used in many other types of written works as well. You should write in this style if your goal is to bring your reader into the written work as if they were experiencing it first hand. It is pulling your audience in, providing details about a character, the setting, or situation in a manner that helps readers imagine and understand the piece. You are essentially transporting the reader to the world of your work through description.

Descriptive writing can often seem poetic in nature, depending on the language used. Most fictional pieces fall under this writing style, yet we can also find this style in some nonfiction pieces, such as memoirs and creative nonfiction, like first-hand accounts of events and travel guides. Poetry and prose, travel diaries, writing about nature, personal journals, musical lyrics, and fictional novels and plays are all common types of descriptive writing.

If writing in different styles is culinary fusion, descriptive writing is the salt - the most flexible seasoning that can be applied to almost any written piece. While cookbooks are expository texts, we often find descriptive writing in the paragraphs describing the dish at the start of a recipe. Likewise, a persuasive text may employ descriptive writing in select parts in order to draw the reader in - an immersed reader is more likely to be convinced of the author’s opinion. Descriptive writing pairs especially well with narrative writing, as communicating a story is most effective with language that places the reader right there.

A How-To: Key Characteristics of Descriptive Writing

  • Have a reason for the description before you start. Bring attention to select details and only highlight those that aid in telling the story
  • Use the six senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, sound, and feeling. Try writing about the same character or situation while highlighting different senses. Play around to see which descriptions give the reader the impression or feeling you want to impart
  • Use literary devices like metaphors, similes, imagery, and personification
  • Show, don’t tell: rather than telling your reader about something in passive language, activate your writing with adjectives, adverbs, and verbs that show what you want to say. Rather than describing your character as exhausted, describe their eyes, their breath, their voice, their posture, their movements - what about them shows they are exhausted?

What does descriptive writing look like?

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens describes the self-centered Mr. Bounderby. Notice the details Dickens opts to highlight to create the character’s impression and the senses he activates:

‘He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.’

3) Persuasive Writing

As writers, we often first encounter persuasive writing in the form of a five paragraph argumentative essay in grade school. This writing style is far more nuanced, however, though the underlying goal is the same. Put simply, the goal of persuasive writing is exactly as it sounds - to persuade, to influence the reader into believing or doing something. This style is appropriate if you are taking a stand on a position or belief and your goal is to convince others to agree with you. In opposition to expository writing, your opinions and bias as an author are acceptable. Sometimes your intent may even be a call to action.

Persuasive writing can be found in written pieces including editorial or opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines, letters written to request an action or file a complaint, advertisements and propaganda, business proposals, political speeches, marketing pitches, cover letters, letters of recommendation, academic essays, and reviews of books, music, films, and restaurants. What makes persuasive writing unique is its intersection with psychology - as its goal is to trigger a desired response, as the author, you must know your audience.

A How-To: Key Characteristics of Persuasive Writing

  • Have a clear purpose
    Keep in mind the action you want the reader to take. Sometimes that action is tangible, and other times it is simply forming an opinion or changing one’s mind.
  • Build a case
    Present the current situation and facts and articulate the need for change - what are the consequences if the situation continues unchecked? Outline a plan for change (or options if they exist) and call the reader to action if appropriate.
  • Appeal to emotion
    Showing empathy with your readers begins to establish trust and relatability - this connection will make your readers more inclined to listen to you. Know your audience and what matters to them.
  • Appeal to reason
    Present your argument with facts, data, and other analytical information in a logical manner that makes it irrefutable and reasonable.
  • Capitalize on social proof
    This is the psychological phenomenon in which people assume the actions of others to reflect “correct” behavior. In persuasive writing, this may emerge in the form of testimonials from strangers or people with authority, influencer recommendations, and polls - all which lend credibility to your argument.
  • Make comparisons
    Relate your scenario or situation to something your reader already knows and accepts as true. Use metaphors, similes, and analogies.
  • Anticipate and respond to objections/counter-arguments
    If you leave holes, your audience will fill them with doubts. Anticipate counter-arguments and address them immediately so you won’t appear on the defensive.
  • Ask rhetorical questions
    These aren’t meant to be answered, however they draw attention and invite your reader to continue reading.
  • Use repetition
    Make your point in several different ways. By presenting information in repeating (not mundane) patterns, your audience is more likely to remember your message.
  • Tell stories
    Stories help you to build and strengthen an emotional connection with your reader. They also generate interest and are most effective when your reader may not know much about the topic at hand. Here we can find an intersection with descriptive and narrative writing.

What does persuasive writing look like?

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay Self-Reliance and Paul Graham’s How To Do What You Love were written centuries apart, and demonstrate how texts can vary stylistically yet focus on the same goal: to persuade. Both authors pepper their writing with rhetorical questions that push the reader to challenge basic assumptions. In Self-Reliance, Emerson outlines what it means to be self-made and promotes self-reliance as an ideal. Graham, in more colloquial language, challenges readers to redefine their understanding of what “work” should be.

4) Narrative Writing

Are you telling a story? Specifically, does your story include a plot, setting, characters, conflict, and a resolution? If so, you are likely writing in the narrative style. Most fiction novels are written in this style and also employ descriptive writing. The biggest difference between purely descriptive versus narrative writing is that the former simply describes, rather than narrate a sequence of events. Aside from fiction novels, memoirs and biographies, screenplays, epic poems, sagas, myths, legends, fables, historical accounts, personal essays recounting experiences, short stories, novellas, anecdotes and oral histories are all examples of narrative writing.

A How-To: Key Characteristics of Narrative Writing

  • Outline the plot of your story. What is the resolution?
  • Include detailed descriptions of your characters and scenes - use concrete and descriptive language that gives readers a specific image to visualize and relate to
  • Give your audience insight into characters’ inner thoughts and behind-the-scenes information
  • Answer the “6 Ws” - who, what, when, where, why, and how - in your piece
  • Consider point of view: your story will change depending on the point of view you choose to tell it from. Whose point of view is the most interesting? Help your reader situate themself in your story by telling it from a defined point of view.
  • Use dynamic dialogue. Keep it short and believable, rather than having characters explain a situation. Use dialogue to show, rather than tell.
  • Know what to tell and what to omit. Leave some elements of the story to your reader’s imagination - this is what keeps them wanting more.

What does narrative writing look like?

See David Foster Wallace’s classic narrative essay Ticket to the Fair, a formidable example of storytelling woven with ample reflection on the Midwest experience and his own identity.

Writing Styles: What are the next steps?

Digging deeper into writing styles - be it your preferred style, the one you work in, or one you rarely write in - can lead to creative surprises and produce more complex pieces that speak to your reader in nuanced ways. As much as it can be a pursuit of passion, writing is also a practice, and writing in different styles can allow you to flex your full range of mental muscle. For example, you may try writing a persuasive essay and descriptive essay on the same topic. Or a poem may become a journal entry or short story. If you’re looking for inspiration, the Writing Prompts guide is an apt starting point.

Try on different styles outside of your comfort zone - experimentation can yield your best work.

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