Understanding Different Styles of Writing
There are a number of different styles of writing that you may encounter in the course of your life. Styles may be formal or informal, and will usually vary to fit the audience and the medium of publication. However, the style will also affect how you read and interpret the document concerned. Understanding the writing style will help you to put your reading into perspective.
This page focuses on the main styles of writing that you are likely to encounter whilst reading, researching and studying, including academic writing, journalistic writing, fiction and non-fiction.
A range of writing styles
Experienced readers will almost certainly recognise various writing styles. These include:
- Academic writing, for essays, dissertations, and reports. A subset of academic writing is articles in academic journals.
- Journalistic writing, usually in news media, including both online and print media.
- Fiction, based on the imagination and including stories, myths and legends.
- Non-fiction or factual writing, which may be chronological or non-chronological.
Many of these styles are not mutually exclusive, and there may be overlap, for example, between non-fiction and academic or journalistic writing. Some would also say that there is considerable overlap between some journalistic writing and fiction!
Academic Writing Styles
Academic writing is usually found in academic journals and textbooks, so most students will rapidly become very familiar with this style.
It is a very careful writing style. Academics want to ensure that their work, and their meaning, is clearly understood, and there is no room for ambiguity. They also want to justify their point of view. They therefore support their writing with evidence, either from their own work, or that of others.
This means that academic texts are usually reliable, although like any other text, you should carefully and critically assess their quality, and not accept everything at face value.
There is more about this style of writing, including how to use it, in our page on Academic Writing.
Journalistic Writing Style
Printed Newspapers and Magazines
In the UK and internationally, there are two types of newspapers, each with a specific style of writing. These are broadsheet and tabloid papers. The name broadsheet comes from the era of the Rotary Press when a broadsheet was the full size of a rotary press plate. This style of journalism usually provides considered points of view, but will certainly conform to an editorial style and perspective and usually a political bias. Broadsheet newspapers can however supply good quality, up-to-date stories.
Journalists who write for broadsheets will usually have a good command of language and be able to argue their point well. They have traditionally often used a deductive style of reasoning, with a logical progression of points to confirm the original statement. Many, however, have now moved to the use of individual stories as a way to make a broader point.
Readers should always be aware that the main objective of any journalism is to sell newspapers. Journalists may therefore sensationalise within their own remit.
Tabloid newspapers were, traditionally, two pages made up from one printing plate and are hence half the size of broadsheets. In the UK, the physical boundaries between broadsheet and tabloid publications has broken down, and some daily newspapers which were once printed as broadsheets are now printed in tabloid form. The style of writing and the content of tabloids does however still differ from that of the broadsheet press.
Generally, tabloids are considered to have a strong editorial bias and to be more sensational than broadsheets. Traditionally, they contain more photographs and less serious discussion. As with broadsheet newspapers, their remit is to sell, and because of this they are often accused of sensationalising news and playing on the prejudices of what they see as the belief system of their readers. The style of a tabloid journalist is usually less considered than that of broadsheet journalists and often the point of view or news will be boldly stated without too much evidence provided to back it up. The use of language is usually less deductive than broadsheet newspapers and more blatant in stating a point of view.
Similar styles of writing, broadsheet or tabloid, exist in many other publications such as magazines. You should be able to recognise the different styles and assess whether the content is relevant and useful to your research.
Newspapers do not usually quote from academic texts unless they are reviewing them and will not contain references or a bibliography. They also often quote unknown sources which are not backed up by any evidence. It is a running joke that “A source close to person x” usually means “A man I met in the street” or even “I think it sounds good to say”.
Printed newspapers continue to decline in sales as many people move to reading journalistic writing online. However, much of the content is the same, as many of the printed news outlets have simply moved online.
One major advantage of online news access is that you can quickly get a more global perspective of any given news story or discussion. You will also often get stories quicker. This is particularly useful when a story is ‘breaking’.
Online news sources still write for their expected audiences – usually a certain demographic and often defined by a geographic region. You should expect bias towards the expected audience and/or political viewpoints.
You can quickly, however, read the views of international journalists whose opinions and viewpoints will inevitably differ. Just as an exercise, try reading a story about the same event from four or five different online news agencies from different countries and consider the different perspectives provided in the articles.
See our page on Journalistic Writing for more.
Most of us will have read a book of fiction and will realise that the author has used imaginary people and events.
Works of fiction do not usually contain a list of references and will not contain a bibliography. That is not to say that some of the aspects related in them are not factual, as in an historical novel, but they will not usually be useful for academic study purposes and would not normally appear in a list of books referred to (unless you are pursuing an English Literature qualification). Having said that, some works of fiction make use of academic conventions to give authority to their imaginary worlds and provide a list of sources at the end of their work.
You may find our page on Creative Writing helpful.
Non-fiction deals with facts. Examples include biography, history and special interest subjects such as gardening through to academic texts.
Although these are all non-fiction, it cannot be taken for granted that they all contain reliable facts. For example, there has been a long running debate in the field of history, and it is agreed that all historical accounts will have been compiled with the prejudices of the recorder going unchallenged, although historians are now more aware of this likely bias.
Most, but by no means all, non-fiction books will contain references to others’ work and a biography. They will also range through different writing styles.
Our page, Technical Writing explains more about this style of writing.
Social Media and Other Online Sources
Much of the content available worldwide is now self-published by the authors via social media or blog-hosting websites.
This content varies widely in both style and accuracy. Many blog writers are meticulous in their source-checking, and in how they describe events. However, many are not.
Just because something is written down does not mean it is true (and see our page on Fake News for more about this).
You should take anything that you read online with a pinch of salt, and always check its credibility with trusted sources or fact-checking websites before you use it (particularly in academic study) or pass it on more generally.
However, this does not mean that online sources are useless for study or research. They can rapidly give a very good ‘feel’ for public opinion on particular topics, and may also be a useful filter. Many academics share their work via Twitter and other social networks, so these can be good ways to stay up-to-date in your chosen field.
The Bottom Line
In the course of your studies, and in your life more generally, you will come across a wide range of writing styles.
This page will enable you to recognise them more accurately, and also draw conclusions about their likely areas of bias. No one style can ever be said to be 100% reliable. Each must be carefully assessed and examined, with an eye for likely biases. Doing so will enable you to read more critically, regardless of the style.