Four writing styles and when to use them

Chernobyl Nuclear Power StationIf you were to read the instructions for operating a nuclear reactor, you would expect it to be written very differently to a novel about a nuclear accident, or a newspaper editorial about the merits (or otherwise) of nuclear power.

Broadly speaking, there are four different styles of writing: expository, descriptive, persuasive and narrative. The style an author adopts for a piece of writing will depend on its purpose and their intended audience.

1. Expository
The purpose of expository writing is to explain. As a technical writer, this is the style that I employ most often. Expository writing relies on facts and observations to convey information. Its function is to be clear, precise and easily understood (at least as easy as possible depending on the subject matter). Instruction manuals, such as how to operate a nuclear reactor, are examples of expository writing. Other examples include:
• recipes
• news reports
• textbooks
• ‘how to’ articles.

2. Descriptive
The purpose of descriptive writing is to describe something (no surprises there). It might be a character, event or location. It’s most commonly employed in fictional writing, but it is also used for nonfiction writing such as memoirs or travel writing. Other examples include:
• poetry
• personal journals
• nature documentaries.

3. Persuasive
Persuasive writing tries to mount an argument and convince you of its merits, whether this is to agree with an opinion or buy a particular product. Advertising relies on persuasive writing, as does a political speech. It might contain facts, but it also relies on reasoning and justifications. An opinion piece as to why the generation of electricity from nuclear fission is either a good or a bad thing will use persuasive writing to justify the author’s position and try to convince the reader of its merits. Other examples include:
• advertisements
• editorials
• film reviews
• letters to the editor.

4. Narrative
The purpose of narrative writing is to tell a story. It goes beyond simply conveying information (as is the case for expository writing), but uses characters, events and settings to build a story or convey a plot. People read a narrative to find out what happens next. A fictionalised account of a nuclear accident, such as the excellent HBO series Chernobyl, is an example of narrative writing. Other examples include:
• novels
• poems (particularly epic sagas)
• autobiographies
• anecdotes.

It’s worth noting that a single piece of writing might employ a combination of writing styles. If you know what these styles are, you can recognise when they are being used, and also use them yourself to make your own writing more effective.

photo credit: Clay Gilliland Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station via photopin (license)

See also:

A body of writing: good bones are just the beginning
Making every word count: improving writing with data