traci's lists of ten

Traci's 12th List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Write about Style

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 10/18/99.

As a student, the idea of style made me nuts. I could understand details and specifics, a variety of structural patterns, comma splices, ways to use the colon. But style. I couldn't get a handle on it. After all, it was one of those shifting things. It seemed thoroughly undefinable to me. Nothing like the clarity of subject-verb agreement and persuasive arguments.

When I began teaching, I felt a sort of crawling in my stomach when I had to bring up issues of style in class. I guess because it seemed so hard to define to me when I was a student. Despite all the wonderful teachers who had explained it to me, I don't think I really "got it" until I was a junior or senior in college.

As a result, I devised a whole battery of class assignments, InterChange and Mail discussion starters, and analytical Respond series. I've collected many of these curriculum resources in the Teacher's Guide and online resources that accompany the Daedalus Style Handbook for Online Writers.

Here are brief versions of some of the writing assignments that are included in the collection.

  1. Choose a passage from the novel or short story that we're reading and translate it into another style. You can choose any style you want. You might choose a very formal style, a jargon-filled technical style, or persuasive, business writing style. You could even try the style of a children's picture book or a personal interest story in a newspaper. Whatever style you choose, be consistent through your entire translation. Use one style from beginning to end. Once you finish your translation, skip down a few lines and add a paragraph or so that explains how you made the decisions that you did as you were translating.

    ALTERNATE VERSION: Translate a fairy tale, folk tale, or fable that you've read into another style. Or get experimental, and have them write a rap version or an exaggerated and flowery version.

  2. You undoubtedly use several styles in your day-to-day communication with people. Some are probably formal; others may be less formal, dialectical, or technical. Write a classification paper that organizes the styles that you use most often. To begin, jot down what you know about the styles that you use. Next, look for connections -- and differences. Which styles can you group in the same category? What sets the different categories apart? Write a paper that outlines the different classes of language that you use and defines specifically the ways that the language in each category is unique.

  3. Choose three paragraphs from a story or novel (averaging at least fifteen words per paragraph), and analyze the stylistic choices that the author has made. Start by taking some notes on the purpose of the passage. Summarize the passage, and outline its significance. Next, think about the way that the author has used style to make a point or emphasize a detail. What words or phrases are repeated? What sentence structures are used? How would you label the text -- formal? informal? objective? chatty? Write a paper that analyzes the style that the author uses. Identify both the stylistic elements that the author uses and their relationship to the characters involved and/or to the main point of the story.

  4. Write the same message in three different styles. Choose a short message -- perhaps an invitation to a party, a description of a small object, a note announcing a new policy. Choose three different styles, and write the message in each of the three styles. You might choose a formal, informal, and objective styles. You could choose a particular slang style, a business writing style, or a legal style. You could write the message using an active style, a passive style, and a natural blend of the two.

  5. Write a paper which explains an English slang word or a jargon term that you know to an foreign exchange student or a friend from another country who is planning a visit to your home. Here is the situation: Your friend has been reading WWW pages about the region where you live and found a slang word or jargon term which he or she didn't understand. Your friend sent you an email message asking you to explain what the word means. For your paper, write the message you'd send to your friend. Explain what the slang word or phrase means and how it is used.

  6. The word "style" is used to describe a lot of kinds of expression. Write a paper that explores a kind of style that DOESN'T involve word choice and sentence structure. You might outline the "rules" that apply to the style that you've chosen or compare/contrast two related styles (in the same way that you might compare formal and informal writing styles). You might describe the style of clothing that you wear. Or consider the stylistic flair of a particular athlete -- think about the variety of styles of slam dunks and backhands. There's a wide range of options: hairstyles, musical styles, and so forth. Just choose a style that you're familiar with and write a paper that explores and explains that style.

  7. Imitate the style of a passage. Choose a descriptive passage from one of the texts that we've been reading. Think about the stylistic choices that the author makes -- what word choice and sentence structure has the writer used? Once you've analyzed the text that you're modeling your piece after, describe the view from your room's window or from a similar location imitating the style of the passage that you've chosen. Try to use similar word choice, sentence structure, and organization. Be sure to include a copy of the passage that you're using as your model when you submit your paper.

  8. Choose an informative newspaper or magazine article that reports details on a recent event and rewrite the article as a personal interest story (or vice-versa). The facts are the same whether you're writing a news story or a personal interest story -- the difference is often the style: the ways that the story is structured, the specific words and phrases that are used, and the ways that the ideas come together in sentences. Think about the difference between the way that someone might be described. A news article might include a description such as "the 6'6" firefighter" while a personal interest story focusing on the man might describe him as "the towering hero." Your rewrite should recast the words and sentences in the original to fit the style of the new version.

  9. Your textbooks explain complex ideas and issues. Regardless of the subject matter, textbooks need to balance the technical jargon and style of the field being covered with explanations and details that make the ideas clear to someone new to the field. Analyze the style that is used in one of your textbooks. What kind of words are used? How often are technical terms included -- and how are those terms presented? What kind of sentences are used? What terms and structures are repeated? In your paper, outline the stylistic choices that the textbook's authors have made and explain how they help (or don't) make the material appropriate for readers.

  10. Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" adopts the style of an adventure tale but uses make-believe words to describe the events. Carroll mixes known and unknown words in phrases such as "vorpal blade." His sentence structure and syntax make sense even though the words that he's chosen are nonsensical.

    For this writing assignment, choose one of these options:

    a) Try your own hand at a "Jabberwocky" tale. Choose a model that you're familiar with and imitate the style for that model, telling a slightly nonsensical story as Carroll does. You don't need to stick with the romantic adventure that Carroll uses as his model -- you might write a sports article, a personal interest story, a news article, or an advertisement. After you've written your "Jabberwocky," write a short reflection that identifies your model and explains the choices that you've made.

    b) Translate Carroll's tale into another style. What would the story have been if Carroll were writing a newspaper report or a technical report? How would the piece be different? Choose a style that makes sense for the story, and write a version of the events using that style. This assignment has two parts: (1) translate the story into a new style, and (2) write a paragraph that identifies the new styles that you've chosen and that explains how you made your decisions as you were translating.