Your writing style is unique
What distinguishes the style of your academic prose from that of other students, or from the prose style of the books, articles and blogs you read for study and research?
One distinguishing quality is that your writing style is your own. It reflects, to some degree, your character, life experience, culture and education. It may also reflect your religious experience and the choices you have made on religious/spiritual grounds. Consider, for example, the contrasts in writing style between Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin observed by a recent biographer:
John Calvin was not an original thinker. Most of his core ideas came from Luther (and Augustine). But he was able to express those ideas far more lucidly than Luther himself ever could – a reflection of their very different temperaments. Whereas Luther was tempestuous, florid, poetic, and wild, Calvin was orderly, precise, logical, and intensely disciplined.
In writing, Luther would pour out his thoughts in a red heat, then send off the manuscript to the printer without even rereading it. Calvin would compulsively revise his Institutes, making sure every modifier, antecedent, and punctuation mark was in its place. Luther’s scriptural exegesis
flowed on for page after unruly page; Calvin’s struck with piquant force. Luther provided the combustion, Calvin the engine to harness it.
Take a moment to consider how your personality may shape your writing style, and to what extent your writing process resembles one or the other of the theologians whose writing process is described above.
Copying the style of others has limited value for developing your own style. As soon as you are able to explore your own style, you should do so. Journalist and literary critic William Zinsser writes, “The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.”
Your writing style is also shaped by the breadth and depth of your general reading, your understanding of the conventions of your academic discipline, and your degree of engagement with the material set or recommended for each course.
Style is also shaped by your passion for what you are writing, the time you are able to devote to research, writing, editing and proofreading, and the depth of your awareness of your own voice in expressing the ideas and arguments you encounter in your studies.
Technical skills affecting style
The way you write is as important as what you say. In one sense, good academic writing is an expression of the quality of your ideas and arguments. But developing your writing skills requires more than a commitment to developing the richness of your ideas and sharpening the power of your arguments. It requires a commitment to make your written expression as technically correct and stylistically elegant as possible.
There is, however, no one “right” way to write an essay. Some students fear they won’t be able to organise their thoughts sufficiently to draft the “right” essay, and that what they do write will be “wrong” and lead to failure and humiliation. Others reason that the one right way to compose an essay (content or method) does not exist, but its Platonic ideal does exist somewhere, and it is their duty to discover this and capture it on paper.
If that describes you, consider this quote from author Howard S. Becker:
Scholarly writers have to organize their material, express an argument clearly enough that readers can follow the reasoning and accept the conclusions. They make this job harder than it need be when they think there is Only One Right Way to do it, that each paper they write has a preordained structure they must find. They simplify their work, on the other hand, when they recognize that there are many effective ways to say something and that their job is only to choose one and execute it so that readers will know what they are doing.
Indeed, in The Elements of Style, E. B. White claims that there is “no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly …, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
Yet White included his own guide to writing and revision in the second and subsequent editions of this classic writer’s handbook. Attention to matters of style, and willingness to adopt new writing practices, are important considerations if you wish to improve your current standard of writing.
As a writer, then, it is important to find your own distinctive voice and use it to express ideas, advance arguments, and share facts and opinions.
By trial and error, learn to write more clearly, concisely and persuasively. Attend to various elements of word usage (vocabulary), grammar and syntax. Cultivate an appropriately positive and personal tone in your writing. Understand and respect ethical considerations such as the use of inclusive language to counteract gender and racial bias. Consider adjusting the layout and design of your essay to increase readability. All of these are academic style issues.
Employing prose to communicate well
Writing a fine essay requires different skills from those required to make a good speech. The challenge of shifting from speech to written communication is, in part, a technological problem. In Digital Paper, Andrew Abbott observes that
Most academic writers type so fast that our written texts are simply recorded talk. If you try to write a paragraph longhand, you will understand this fact at once. Before you have finished writing down your first version of a longhand sentence, you will have thought of two or three better ways to write it. That’s what real writing feels like – very different from speaking.
Reading speed has not noticeably changed over the past century, but extracting meaning from written prose is fundamentally different from extracting meaning from speech sounds. Our brains engage in different interpretive tasks in each case. This is one reason why some students prefer to learn by reading books while others find learning more effective when the input is in the form of spoken lectures, or YouTube clips, or class discussion.
Andrew Abbott again:
In the oral context, we have gestures, expression, vocal tone, prosody, emphasis, and other paralinguistic cues to assist our meaning. We can say the one word “Right!” and determine by the tone of our voice whether our listener hears “I agree” or “Nobody but a fool would agree.” In reading there is no such paralinguistic repertoire; emoticons have not yet come to academic prose. The text itself must convey all our meaning to the reader.
Therefore, words must be chosen very carefully, syntax must be precise, and ambiguity can be employed only with clear intention. Put formally, writing means turning the natural communication of speech (talk plus paralinguistic cues) into a conventionalized text that conveys an unambiguous and complex message to a reader in our absence.
On the other hand, writing an essay involves the use of dialogic skills. For Raj Nadella, drawing on the thought of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin:
writing is, at its core, an act of being in dialogue and communication with others, especially with the intellectual predecessors who have gone before us. Writing is also an act of engaging those who might come after us in dialogue as we anticipate their participation in the conversation.
This dialogic aspect of writing, and its emphasis, has a profoundly spiritual dimension. It entails opening up of spaces – literally or metaphorically – to others, inviting them to enter, and crossing boundaries that can lead to a new level of familiarity. Before you can open up your intellectual, spiritual spaces and invite others into them, a level of trust is required.
Conversely, those entering these spaces must also express a certain level of trust. Both parties express a willingness and a certain amount of courage to expose themselves to encounters that can be enriching and stimulating, but at times also uncomfortable.
As you write an academic essay, then, cultivate an awareness that you are not engaging in the same form of communication as required for speaking with our physical voice. At the same time, recognise that you are engaging in meaningful dialogue with your readers. Careful attention to matters of style leads to more effective written communication.
Defining academic style
According to theological academic and writing expert Lucretia Yaghjian, style may be functionally defined as “how you write what you write, when you write in a given genre, from a particular stance, for a specific audience.”
Academic style may be construed linguistically on the basis of surface features such as use of the active voice or omission of unnecessary words. It may be construed generically as one differentiates between “stuffy,” “colloquial,” “tough” and “sweet” writing styles. It may be construed epistemologically in the sense of a “conceptual stand.” It may be construed pluralistically, acknowledging with T. S. Eliot “wide scope for legitimate divergences of style; no one age, and certainly no one writer, can establish a norm.” Style may be construed rhetorically, in the accommodation of the known preferences and expectations of an audience. It may be construed individually as an expression of the writer’s “fingerprint” or personality.
Different style conventions apply in different academic disciplines. Some rules of grammar or syntax may be relaxed, or enforced, for different subjects and by different examiners.
For example, one lecturer may permit use of sentences beginning with “But…”, or the use of “I” (that is, writing in the first person), while another lecturer may not. In some essays, you are required to include personal subjective reflections and opinions, while in other essays your prose is expected to remain objective and you may lose marks for expressing personal opinions. Always confirm what style rules are expected or allowed for each essay.
Defining theological style
Is there something distinctive about theological writing, or writing theologically? Specific writing conventions do arise in theological and religious contexts. St Augustine argued that theologians need to write well to “win over the antagonistic, rouse the apathetic, and make clear to those who are not conversant with the matter under discussion what they should expect.”
In the context of theological writing, Richard Newton says, “We write theology the way doctors practice medicine. Before us is serious work that we will never fully master. But we can gracefully and dutifully practice writing in hopes that we will help perfect the body of Christ.”
What then is theological style? Yaghjian identifies three “theological genres” (the pastoral reflection paper, the systematic reflection paper, and the constructive theological essay), but there are also other forms with distinctive writing conventions such as the exegetical essay, church history essay, and practical theology paper. However, Yaghjian focuses on the three key types and illustrates their distinctive styles with respective reference to three classical theological exemplars: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Julian of Norwich.
Yaghjian then broadens her scope to encompass considerations of theological language, subject matter, conceptual stance, diversity, and audience, giving contemporary examples of each. For example, expanding on her earlier definition of academic style (noted above), Yaghjian suggests that contemporary theological writers have defined theological style in the following ways:
- linguistically, as Thomas Merton enjoins those writing about God to do so “in sentences that are [not] half-dead”;
- generically, as Rowan Williams identifies celebratory, communicative, and critical styles of theology;
- epistemologically, as Paul Tillich asserts, “Every style points to a self-interpretation of man”;
- pluralistically, as Rowan Williams enjoins readers to “affirm theologically the propriety of different [theological] styles”;
- rhetorically, as David Tracy correlates the style of a theological “classic” with its “publicness,” or effective communication to audiences;
- through the metaphor of voice, such as when Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza encourages her students to “find their theological voices by developing discourses of critique, empowerment and possibility.”
Not every student will want to embrace all, or even most, of these styles in their own work. Yet they suggest the range and diversity that is possible within a robust theological framework.
Yaghjian concludes that theological style, broadly conceived, “is how you write theology in a given theological genre, from a particular theological stance, for a specific theological audience, using your own words, your own sentences, your own paragraphs, your own images, your own arguments, your own metaphors, and your own voice.”
For Yaghjian, three observations follow from this definition:
First, there is not one “theological style” but a diversity of “theological styles” constitutive of the stylistic conventions of the written genre (pastoral reflection, systematic reflection, constructive theological essay, and so on) and the writer’s individual style and voice (the “personal voice,” the “academic voice,” and various combinations of both of these).
Second, this diversity of theological styles does not imply that theological writing can be done “free style,” since each “theological style” is driven by the conventions of its genre and the expectations of its audience. It thus behooves you to familiarize yourself with both of these when beginning a theological writing assignment …
Third, your mastery of theological style will only be as good as the words, sentences, and paragraphs that you write, for … they are the rhetorics, or purposeful elements, of theological style.