Most people, when they write something, give very little consideration to the style that they are using. After all, when we are knocking up a shopping list or hurriedly scribbling a note for someone to tell them that we will be late for dinner we hardly have the time to check our work for prosidy or to admire our alliteration. Nevertheless even these random scribbling tend to conform to a certain style of writing that is useful to our immediate needs. The tabular form of a shopping list fits our concept of the appropriate form of a document that is used to buy our weekly groceries and it wouldn’t be nearly as useful or appropriate if it was written in prose: We shall go to the potato crisp aisle and pick up a large bag of Doritos then down to the pasta aisle for a half kilo bag of fusili, and so on is not as practical as a list is. When we write a note to our grandmother we don’t use the same language or formatting as when we correspond with a lover. All of these written works possess a style it’s just that we are not aware of them as stylized documents.
For most writers the word style is indicative of their personal voice and the way that they use words in order to get their message across. But on a more technical level writing style denotes a method of writing and formatting a document to conform to a set of standards with the aim of making written collections of material consistent from one document to the next. There are literally dozens of different writing styles, many of which are structured for specific fields like journalism, legal papers or academic research. Most commonly the style employed is the Chicago Style which is well suited to writing clear reports for business or mostly non-academic research. Nearly all newspapers use the Associated Press (AP) Style Guide for formatting news items for print and most of us are familiar with its characteristic first person voice and direct mode of relating the facts of a story. A style that is very commonly used for writing academic research papers is the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style of writing which has strict rules for formatting, endnotes and reference citation that makes the docoments that are formatted this way easy for students to use.
Anyone that desires to work as a writer will eventually run across the requirement to present their written material in a formal style. Many magazines stipulate that they only accept articles that are in the Chicago Style for instance, and journalists of course will have to write in the style that their newspaper uses so it may be that to write for the Times in London you would have to use the Times Style and Usage Guide for your latest scoop to be acceptable to the editors. This has been a big part of my own learning curve as a writer this year as my work is getting into more places and I have been required to learn new styles for my writing. On the whole this has been a broadening experience and has taught me how to put on many different hats as an author that has to write for a variety of applications. The time that I have spent learning different styles has not been wasted by any stretch of the imagination.
So my advice for any up and coming writers out there is to start learning to adapt to different styles now. A good place to start is The Chicago Manual of Style or even the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and from there to have a go at writing something by the rules laid out. As writers we still have our own personal style but learning to take on someone else’s style not only improves your writing skill it increases the chance that you will sell something that you’ve written.