No, this blog is not about stylish writing, writing in style, or style writing. It’s about the writing styles that encapsulate all writing. Contrary to what they say in Hollywood and New York there are only four. Yes, there are innumerable ways to write, but all fall into four distinct styles. As your eyeballs roll from left to right across these words, and then scroll down, you are reading Expository writing. Style number two is Descriptive. Number three is Narrative and the last style is Persuasive. There, I’ve named all four in three sentences.
With apologies to stylists everywhere, my focus is on the ethics of each individual style. As you might guess, the style you write comes with ethical baggage. All four styles exist to differentiate goals, processes, and the categorical imperatives within each style.
Expository writing is factual. It’s most imperative ethical norm is accuracy. It’s not a story, literary, or amusing. It informs dully and instructs endlessly. It has never changed anyone’s mind, disposition, or status in life. But to learn how to boil water, dig a foxhole, or find an adventure trip to Antarctica you will need to find an expository piece of writing. Think media infomercials, nonfiction books, textbooks, virus and vaccine research reports, digital watch settings, and social media by children too young to be left outside in the dark, but old enough to program your remote.
Descriptive writing is descriptive. Its vital ethical norm is plausibility. It can be poetic. It often uses metaphors, similes and anomalies. It reaches your senses, in addition to your cranial vault. Sometimes it drills down to microscopic levels to fill you in on the minutia of what’s being described on the page in front of you. Think poetry, diaries, fairy tales, nature writing, long form writing just short of books, mountain scenes, the bottom of the ocean, and typed letters to the judge seeking long prison terms for the guys that blew up you house by mistake.
Narrative writing is storytelling. It may be truthful, or not. If it’s packaged as nonfiction, it has to be true. Novels are made-up. In both cases the narrative has to be well plotted with a punchy beginning, a fulsome middle, and a well-disguised ending that seals the deal. Think twins separated at birth, raised on opposing continents, and jailed in the same penitentiary for life in a ten by ten cell with no heating and no window. Think lovely writing, or tragic fragility, rebounding hope or inevitable loss. The best examples of narrative writing are novels, war stories, westerns, biographies, John Gresham, Steven King, Ernest Hemmingway, J.K. Rowling, Scott Turrow, Irving Stone, James A. Michener, Irving Stone, Robert Caro, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Larry McMurtry and anything written by Cormac McCarthy.
Persuasive writing wins over readers, reviewers, nonbelievers, skeptics, opposing counsel, judges, voters, teachers, and juries of all kinds. Its ethical grounding is honesty and integrity. It always has a viewpoint, can be written in any tense, argumentative and never tentative. Most persuasive pieces have a call to action, purchase, cause, or threat. The best examples are academic writing, opinions, editorials, ads, recommendations and ransom notes. It’s unique because it blends well into expository and descriptive writing seamlessly and shamelessly. Politic speech can be persuasive but is driven by dogma, party loyalty, and money. Political writing uses money to persuade, not content. Politicians don’t write—they perpetually run for office depending on much money their speechwriters raise. Heck of a deal.
Essays are a special expository niche. They call for investigation, careful selection, analysis, evidence, sourcing and extensive detailing. They can be subdivided into definition, classification, process, cause and effect, problem solution, and compare/contrast.
The best narrative nonfiction writers in recent times are J.D. Vance, Margot Lee Shirley, Truman Capote, Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer and Michael Lewis.
The best novels are Anna Karenina, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and The Sea, and The Color Purple. They expose, describe, tell, and persuade.
Some authorities add a fifth style, called Argumentative Writing. It’s a kissing cousin of persuasive writing, but on steroids. “While persuasive writing can get by with a heartfelt emotional appeal or a well-defended opinion, argumentative writing must cite scientific studies, statistics and quotes from experts. It also highlights evidence that the author has generated with his/her own surveys and questionnaires.” My people, lawyers, take umbrage. Great lawyers, like Robert H. Jackson know that eloquence and force win arguments in court. He was the prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Trials at the end of WWII. A part of his closing argument is worthy of inclusion here.
“This was the philosophy of the National Socialists. When for years they have deceived the world, and masked falsehood with plausibility’s, can anyone be surprised that they continue the habits of a lifetime in this dock? Credibility is one of the main tissues of this trail. Only those who have failed to learn the bitter lessons of the last decade can doubt that men who have always played on the unsuspecting credulity of generous opponents would not hesitate to do the same now. It is against such a background that these defendants now ask this Tribunal to say that they are not guilty of planning, executing, or conspiring to commit this long list of crimes and wrongs. They stand before the record of this trial as blood-stained Gloucester stood by the body of his slain King. He begged of the widow, as they beg of you: “Say I slew them not.” And the Queen replied, “Then say they were not slain. But dead they are. If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime.”
A fitting end to a blog about writing styles is Steven Pinker’s book, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century!” It is not a reference manual or a remedial writing guide. It’s for “people who know how to write and want to write better,” as well as “for readers who seek no help in writing by are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.” Think ethics.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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