Special to the San Jose Mercury News

How to Develop Your Style of Writing to Suit Your Career

By Susan Almazol

As professionals climb the career ladder, they are sometimes shocked to get their emails and documents bounced back to them for major revision. They are not used to having their ideas rejected.

At issue many times is not their ideas, but how they present them. In other words, their writing style is not considered appropriate. Why not? Because at higher levels of an organization, professionals often deal with wider audiences, more sensitive issues, and the added role of company representative.

Their writing style must be flexible enough to meet the differing needs of their readers, to handle sensitive issues in the appropriately diplomatic or forceful manner, and to reflect the image the company wishes to project.

Style, it becomes clear to professionals who succeed, is not about good or bad ideas, or even about good or bad writing. Rather, it is a business tool to convey ideas in a certain fashion for a desired result. Style of writing can range from direct or indirect, formal or conversational, matter of fact or descriptive, to cool or warm.

Recently, for example, a newly promoted analyst was becoming increasingly frustrated when her new manager kept questioning her reports. The tension over the reports affected other areas of their relationship. In desperation, she signed up for a writing class during which she learned about style options.

The analyst began to realize that her boss expected more formal reports from her. She had been quite casual in writing her recommendations and conclusions. This style had worked in her previous job, but clearly was not appropriate in her new position. In her next report, she deliberately toned down her breezy style and adopted a more formal style. To her relief, her manager was more receptive to her ideas. So she continued to write in her new style, and their working relationship began to improve.

Individuals are not alone in having strong preferences for how information is presented. Certain professions, even entire organizations, may favor a particular style.

One local company, for example, prides itself on its thoroughness and attention to detail. These valued qualities are reflected in their lengthy, well-documented reports and proposals. Another company nearby is all sleek and sophisticated, from its glass-and chrome decor to its streamlined documents, which boast brisk sentences, easy-to read paragraphs, and attractive formats that feature different typefaces.

The cool style concentrates on ideas rather than on personality. The warm style emphasizes human-to-human communication and focuses on the reader as a person.

The cool style looks curt, with brief sections and paragraphs. Visually, the warm style looks ample. Paragraphs tend to be full, but not overwhelmingly so.

Sentences in the warm style tend to be longer than in the cool style because of the attempt to include both ideas and reader.

The cool style avoids any reference to people, unless absolutely necessary. As for word choices, the warm style makes use of words like “feel” and “agreeable” as well as pronouns, first names, and adjectives.

So how does one become more skillful in using different styles as needed in business? The first step is to identify the available style options. The next step, of course, is to consider not only ideas, but also the appropriate style in planning all business documents.

Following are brief descriptions of four style options, their major characteristics, and examples of each.

The major style options:

  • Direct vs. indirect
  • Formal vs. conversational
  • Matter-of-fact vs. descriptive
  • Cool vs. warm.

The identifying characteristics of these styles include visual impact or appearance of a document, sentence structure, and word choices.

Direct vs. Indirect

A direct style of writing is forceful, even blunt. Its message is communicated in crystal-clear fashion. An indirect style, on the other hand, is more diplomatic, even intentionally imprecise at times.

Visually, a document written in a direct style looks lean and brisk. The document is neatly divided into sections, as needed, and paragraphs are short, less than seven sentences. But a document written in the indirect style has a chunkier, fuller, more-effort-to-read look. It features long paragraphs with perhaps few or no sections to break up information.

The direct style uses the active voice and commands. Most sentences are short and to the point. They are written in the subject-verb-object order, with qualifying phrases, if any, at the ends of sentences. However, the indirect style often begins with qualifying phrases. Sentences tend to be wordy, often running more than 20 words.

Words used in the direct style are chosen for their maximum impact. Indeed, action words or verbs are preferred. But in the indirect style, many “softening” words and phrases are used, for example, “it is possible,” some might say” and “perhaps.” Nouns are favored over action words.

The following statements illustrate the difference between these two styles:

“Rewrite the requirements for this new position. The current requirements will discourage prospective applicants.” (Direct)

“Although the requirements for the new position are generally good, it is recommended that they be modified somewhat since their effect may be to discourage prospective candidates from applying.” (Indirect)

Formal vs. Conversational

A formal style of writing is impersonal, objective, with an emphasis on concepts. It is highly serious as compared with the conversational style, which is informal, personal, and may include humorous touches.

Visually, a formal document looks ponderous to the reader. Sections and paragraphs are long blocks of gray. Numerous pages of supporting material may be included, even with short memos. On the other hand, documents written in the conversational style look quick and easy to read, with short sections and paragraphs. Sections may include only two to three paragraphs.

The formal style makes use of the passive voice and long, complex sentences with qualifying clauses and phrases. But the conversational style uses short, brisk, simple sentences, usually in the active voice. Questions are frequently used also.

As for word choices, the formal style favors long, technical, and uncommon words and phrases. In the conversational style, everyday words, contractions, pronouns, and people*s names are preferred.

Here are examples of the formal and conversational styles:

“The purchase of software programs is being considered for the use of the technical staff. The objective is to relieve the staff of routine, time-consuming calculations. Input from the staff is needed to aid in the decision to select the most appropriate programs to purchase.” (Formal)

“Are you doing technical work that you*d like to have a computer do? If so, please tell me how a computer can help you. Give me a list of the types of programs you can use.” (Conversational)

Matter-of-Fact vs. Descriptive

The matter-of-fact style lets facts speak from themselves. Ideas are stated objectively; opinions and biases are not readily discernible. The descriptive style, on the other hand, attempts to be lively and persuasive.

Visually, the matter-of-fact style leads to documents that look like they are full of information – text, charts, graphs, appendices. Paragraphs tend to be long, and sections are infrequently used. Descriptive-style documents look varied, with long paragraphs followed by short ones.

An important idea may be stated in a dramatic one-sentence paragraph for effect in descriptive-style documents.

Word choices are the distinguishing difference between these two styles. The matter-of-fact style tends to use straightforward, non-evaluative words, and expressions, while the descriptive style tends to use lively adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors.

Two examples illustrate this difference:

“The procedure below will solve the linking problem.” (Matter-of-fact)

“The cost-effective procedure explained in detail below is the key to solving the linking problem once and for all.” (Descriptive)

Cool vs. Warm

The cool style concentrates on ideas rather than on personality. The warm style emphasizes human-to-human communication and focuses on the reader as a person.

The cool style looks curt, with brief sections and paragraphs. Visually, the warm style looks ample. Paragraphs tend to be full, but not overwhelmingly so.

Sentences in the warm style tend to be longer than in the cool style because of the attempt to include both ideas and reader.

The cool style avoids any reference to people, unless absolutely necessary. As for word choices, the warm style makes use of words like “feel” and “agreeable” as well as pronouns, first names, and adjectives.

The difference between these styles is apparent in the following examples:

“A meeting needs to be scheduled next week to order supplies for the division. I suggest meeting Tuesday at 11.” (Cool)

“Terry, next week is a good time for us to look over our supplies and decide together what we will need to order for the division. Is Tuesday at 11 agreeable with you?” (Warm)

In summary, style does not have to be a mysterious concept or a headache. It is a business tool that can be sensibly used by all professionals, not only to advance their ideas, but also their careers.

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