Styles of Writing
This page is part of our section on Study Skills, the skills you need to help you to study and learn effectively. This page identifies the main styles of writing that you are likely to encounter when you read around your topic.
You may also want to see our page: Sources of Information for ideas about where to find relevant materials.
Understanding the styles of writing used in various documents can help you put what you read into perspective. There are many different and distinct writing styles that are adopted by authors depending on their audience and also on the medium in which they are publishing – an article may be written differently online than it would be in a book or academic journal. This page covers the main writing styles that you are likely to encounter whilst reading, researching and studying.
Experienced readers will instinctively recognise the various styles, which include:
- Articles from journals
Academic writing tends to be precise, cautious, lengthy and even pedantic. It is a style of writing which most students will quickly become familiar with.
Academic writers attempt to ensure that their analysis does not contain inaccurate information or omissions - essential points are usually clearly justified. This is a way of ensuring that the writer is saying exactly what they mean - even if this means creating a lengthy piece in the process. This style can be tedious to read - but it does help to ensure that the essential points of the text are interpreted correctly. Such texts are usually written in a clear and logical way, which often involves pointing out what the author is going to say and then actually explaining their point and concluding by pointing out what has been said – similar in style to a student essay.
Academic texts will contain references and quotes from others’ work and a reference list or bibliography. This shows that the author is writing on sound foundations and has taken into account, or at least read, what others have also explored and discussed. Of course, even academic authors may have been selective and ensured that their viewpoint is being validated by others, so a degree of caution - to understand the validity and biases - should be given. Some academics writers offer alternative interpretations by other academics. This is usually a good sign since it ensures that the reader is aware of the diversity of opinion and that the author is being objective.
Academic journals are produced by different institutions across a broad range of subject areas.
Academic journals are usually published regularly; quarterly or tri-annually although some may be more frequent. Because they are regularly produced they are able to respond more quickly to new research. For this reason they are thought of as providing analysis of the latest ideas and thoughts from across the academic community.
Academic journals will be written in very much the same tone as academic books containing the same analytical style. Academic journals are generally well-respected as their content has been peer reviewed. Peer review means that an article has been examined and scrutinised by an expert in the field (a peer) and that it is considered acceptable for publication. Journal articles may go through several revisions before they are accepted for publication.
Despite these checks you, as the reader, still need to be wary of the quality of the content and take steps to read further around ideas and theories to check relevance and validity. As you should use an element of common-sense when using internet sources, so you should when reading journal articles.
- “Is the journal a well-known and well-established publication?”,
- “Are the articles in the journal peer-reviewed?”,
- “Does the journal represent a national body?”,
- “Is the journal linked to a university?”
Academic journals, like other academic texts, will contain references to, and quotes from, others’ work as well as a reference list or bibliography. For a list of available journals you could check your library or search online for academic journals or a related theme. If you are a student at university then you may have access to JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org) or another online journal distributor.
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 journalism and tabloid journalism. 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 is usually composed of 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 will often use a deductive style of reasoning; this involves a logical progression of points which confirm the original statement. Nonetheless, one should always be aware that their main objective is to sell newspapers and hence they may be likely to 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, 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 contained 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 public. 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 access 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.
Printed newspapers continue to decline in sales as many people read journalistic writing styles online. One major advantage, if you follow journalist writing styles for your research, is that you can quickly get a more global perspective of any given news story or discussion. Online news sources will still write for their expected audiences – usually a certain demographic and often defined by a geographic region. For this reason 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 - 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.
Most of us will have read a book of fiction and will realise that the author has used imaginary people and events. Such books 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 the 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.
Non-fiction deals with facts, examples of which 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 contain undeniable facts. For example, there has been a long running debate on the genre of history as 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.