Notes on Style in the Reports

I’ve had a few questions on the style and formality required in the reports, so I thought I’d give some general suggestions.

I don’t feel too strongly about formality for its own sake, and I certainly think using the first person is fine (when it serves an actually purpose; the use of “I” can be problematic if it is distracting from the topic you’re writing on, but it is usually helpful it is used to clarify your arguments and points). If you don’t want to use the first person, for whatever reason, please avoid those mechanical techniques for avoiding it (like saying “this author” instead of “I”).

More generally, I’d say that your style and level of formality should match your content. I think an informal, playful or witty style would suit a report on, say, an article on Justin Bieber’s latest capers or on a really cheezy ad for fancy chocolates–but perhaps not an article on a missing person or the spread of a SARS-like virus in the Middle East. Here’s an analogy: what outfit is appropriate for our class? You certainly wouldn’t wear the clothes you’d wear at a wedding or job interview; nor would you come to class in the pajamas you sleep in our the outfit you would wear at the club.
You probably don’t think of your writing this way, but you almost certainly already know how to modulate your style according to context: consider the various registers, diction and tone you’d use in (a) an email to your best friend; (b) an email to a potential employer; (c) an email to your grandparents; (d) a letter of complaint to your phone company; (e) a letter to a potential employer…. etc.

As with money, the most important thing is to write within your means. There’s nothing more transparent than overwriting or using big words or complex phrasing for their own sake. Avoid using words you wouldn’t be able to define on the spot; moderate your reliance on the thesaurus (using synonyms for the sake of avoiding repetition is more often confusing than helpful). I’m not saying you shouldn’t move beyond your current levels of comfort–on the contrary! What I am saying is that you should read up on those words you use, if you’re not 100% sure of their meaning.
A few rules of thumb that might help: (1) you can begin sentences with “and” or “but” (this can help with connecting two sentences, or give special emphasis to the second sentence); (2) you can begin sentences with “because” (as long as the sentence begins with a dependent clause, in the same way that you could begin the same sentence with “since” or that ugly phrase “due to the fact that”); (3) use colons and semi-colons IF you know how to. That’s all for now, but if you want to read more, check out the great online writing resources listed on your syllabus and under the “Links” tab on this blog.


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