Apprentices to traditional arts, crafts, and trades spend a lot of time getting to know the tools and techniques of their profession. Through that, they gain confidence and a deep understanding of the best way to work with ease.
Any job is easier to do when you know two things before you begin: what it is you want to create, and the tools you have in your toolkit to help you do it.
Writers have a toolkit, too. It contains five basic writing styles you can use to build a framework for stories and articles: description, narrative, exposition, instruction, and persuasion. Though most writing contains elements of more than one style, one is usually dominant. Which of the styles you select as your main approach will depend on your intention–the reason you are writing and the effect you want your words to have on your reader.
“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism, what will be grasped at once.”
– Cyril Connolly in “Enemies of Promise” (1938)
Description and narrative fall into Connolly’s “read twice” category, instruction and argumentation into “grasped at once,” with exposition forming a bridge between the two.
Let’s take a quick tour, so you can get to know these writing styles.
Descriptive text presents the physical and non-physical characteristics of living things, objects, and processes, real or imaginary. You’ll use this text style often in your poetry and prose (fiction) writing.
Description is one of the tools you’ll use to write things that people will want to read twice, as Connolly put it. Description is the art of using information about what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell to help your reader EXPERIENCE your words.
The aim of description is to reach out and touch your reader’s senses and emotions; to create a relationship between your reader and your writing.
The aim of narrative is to create a structure and order that guide your reader through your text. Narrative answers the “and then…?” question. A narrative text tells a story by presenting actions and events in a logical time order. Most fictional texts are narrative.
Narrative is not as flowery or detailed as description. It presents a more distanced and factual view of events. In narrative, you observe rather than experience the story events.
Exposition is the style of writing we read in newspapers and articles. The aim of exposition is to explain connections, show how something works, or how something should be done. Exposition explains complex issues, reports on topics, and offers the reader hands-on information from an impartial, authoritative standpoint.
Use exposition to analyze and explain complex issues in a precise and objective way. For example, “The Administrative Structure of the European Union.,” or “Conflict in Cashmere: The Historical Background.”
These days exposition is primarily a non-fiction style. It has been used in fiction in the past to fill readers in on background before a story begins in earnest, but it goes in and out of fiction fashion. At the moment it’s pretty much out of favor, but don’t let that put you off using small doses if it’s best for what you want to do.
The aim of instruction is to inform, educate, and influence your reader to act. An instructive text educates readers or influence their actions by advising about a topic. This text style usually includes commands and instructions.
Instructive texts can be purely descriptive and objective (How To Mend A Punctured Bicycle Tire) or didactic, i.e., carry a subjective moral message (How Bring The Biblical Commandments To Life.)
The aim of persuasion (argumentation) is to persuade readers to adopt a specific view and act accordingly. Persuasion is a non-fiction style that deals with ideas and controversy. The writer presents a clear opinion and personal views on a topic, then provides facts and reasons (arguments) to support her stance.
You might want a reader to act by purchasing a product, by signing a petition, by making a donation to charity, or by voting for your candidate in an election.
Tour over! Those are the four basic writing styles. Now you know which tool is best for which task, and that means you’ll be able to make the most effective style choices when you write.
By Susan J. Letham