Learn the 4 Basic Writing Styles to Enhance Your Own
Imagine you were to write your next business email as a poem. That certainly wouldn’t work, and here’s why.
Just about everything written can be categorized into four fundamental styles, and each of these forms of writing has a specific purpose:
Expository: to explain with detailed information.
Persuasive: to convince with the right arguments.
Descriptive: to depict a situation or convey a certain mood.
Narrative: to tell a story.
Understanding the basic writing styles will help you identify messages faster, and in turn, create better and more targeted text.
In this article, you’ll get the “what”, “when” and “why” of each type of writing, plus some inspiring examples to guide you on your journey to becoming a better writer.
Remember when you had to write a composition in school about a specific topic? Well, this is the style that you would have used. Expository writing explains. It provides detailed information about a specific subject, and can be reinforced visually with tables, graphics, and charts. It is meant to be objective and the opinion of the author is not as important as the subject.
How to identify expository style
Expository writing provides readers with definitions, explanations or processes. You can recognize this form of writing by its extensive use of data - like dates, numbers or technical features. Expository writing is organized in a logical order and is generally written in a neutral tone of voice. Grammatically, you would find either past or present tense. The voice used should be second person if it’s instructional or third person if an explanation.
When to use it
Essays, including business, medical or scientific writing
How-to articles and guides (like this article)
News stories - but not editorial pieces
Why to use it
Use the expository style when you want to explain, teach or transmit any kind of information without judgement. When the content itself, and not the writer’s point of view, is of primary importance, this is the writing style to consider.
Examples of expository style
“'At least 250 journalists were in jail in relation to their work as of December 1,' nonprofit group the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.” CNN online news
“All warranty claims are subject to authorization and at our sole discretion. Retain your proof of purchase to ensure warranty coverage.” JLab Earbuds
"How to make the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever [...] 1. Soften butter [...] 2. Measure the flour correctly [...] 3. Use lots of chocolate chips [...] 4. Do not over-bake these chocolate chip cookies!" Joy Food Sunshine
The persuasive writing style does just that: persuades. When you read it, you are called to take an action or change a belief. By definition, it includes the author’s opinion, which can be about virtually anything, ranging from a product in advertising text, an issue in an editorial piece, or an interpretation in a philosophical essay.
How to identify persuasive style
The author is trying to convince you of something. By the end of a persuasive piece, you are generally asked, explicitly or implicitly, to adopt an opinion or act on the message. This is why, grammatically, a persuasive piece is almost always written in second person. Often, it uses the imperative form, although it doesn’t have to, and some of the most successful persuasive pieces actually manage to convince you without explicitly telling you what to do or think.
When to use it
Most work emails and PowerPoint presentations
Any opinion piece
Why to use it
Many tasks require writers to be neutral and just convey information. Yet, in this age of social media, we are often asked to bring ourselves into our work and provide more of a dialogue with our readers. Our best persuasion techniques should be used in this type of writing.
Examples of persuasive style
“Discover the platform that gives you the freedom to create, design, manage and develop your web presence exactly the way you want.” Wix homepage
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Inaugural address, US President John F. Kennedy
“Diners should pay attention to workers, not just the food.” Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial of the Boston Globe, Kathleen Kingsbury
“They don’t write songs about Volvos.” Corvette advertising campaign
Have you ever been transported to a different time or place as you’re reading a great paragraph? It’s probably because it was written in the descriptive style. This type of writing paints a picture to convey a situation or evoke a certain mood. It can be applied to describe literally anything and in any format, and while it is used mostly for fiction, it can also work for non-fiction.
How to identify descriptive style
Descriptive writing generally includes lots of adjectives and adverbs and is often characterized by longer sentences and paragraphs. Sensory details, like the way a character looks or how the weather feels, are also indicative of this form of writing. As you read, you can visualize what the author is describing in your mind’s eye. Grammatically, it can use any tense or narrative voice.
When to use it
Longer essays or editorial pieces that require details
Why to use it
Descriptions add valuable content to any kind of writing. Descriptive writing can combine with the other three forms of writing when persuading (persuasive), instructing (expository), or telling a story (narrative). You want your readers to imagine that they can see what you are creating with your words. The best kind of descriptive writing brings readers into your world.
Examples of descriptive style
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, The Beatles
"Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
“Fear is for the winter... when the snows fall a hundred feet
deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long
night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children
are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and
hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods.” A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
4. Narrative style
When you are sitting down to write your Academy-award winning screenplay or the next piece to win the Nobel prize for literature, this is the style to use. The narrative style tells a story. This is why it’s most widely used when composing works of fiction or biographical non-fiction.
How to identify the narrative style
The best way to recognize the narrative style is to identify its more characteristic elements:
Sets a scene.
Usually has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Includes characters, plots, backgrounds and descriptions
Tends to be longer than the other writing styles.
Grammatically, a narrative is usually told in past tense but can also be in present tense. The narrator speaks in the first or third person, but since anything is possible in fiction, you can also find pieces written to the reader in second person. Same with telling a story about something that hasn’t happened yet using future tense.
When to use it
Why to use it
When done well, a narrative can give the reader context, character development, scenic descriptions, and so much more. The tone and voice used can be anything you as the writer decide will best fit the piece.
The narrative style can also incorporate all the other types of writing, for example:
To set a scene, you can use descriptive style.
To have a character convince the reader or another character of their viewpoint, you can use the persuasive style.
To present historical facts, dates or places relevant to your story, you can use the expository style.
Examples of narrative style
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Franz Kafka
"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
"'Where's Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast." Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Annie Landa Rosen, Technical Content Writer at Wix
I spend my days combining the world of technology and code with good content. When I’m not writing and editing, I love to read fiction and go hiking with my kids and our very energetic dog.