Three Writing Styles

Status-minded folks write more formally, vs. analytically or narratively:

We analysed hundreds of essays written by my students and we identified three very different writing styles: formal, analytic and narrative.

Formal writing often appears stiff, sometimes humourless, with a touch of arrogance. It includes high rates of articles and prepositions but very few I-words, and infrequent discrepancy words, such as “would”, and adverbs. Formality is related to a number of important personality traits. Those who score highest in formal thinking tend to be more concerned with status and power and are less self-reflective. They drink and smoke less and are more mentally healthy, but also tend to be less honest. As people age, their writing styles tend to become more formal.

Analytical writing, meanwhile, is all about making distinctions. These people attain higher grades, tend to be more honest, and are more open to new experiences. They also read more and have more complex views of themselves.

Narrative writers are natural storytellers. The function words that generally reveal storytelling involve people, past-tense verbs and inclusive words such as “with” and “together”. People who score high for narrative writing tend to have better social skills, more friends and rate themselves as more outgoing. (more; HT Amara Graps)

So do readers assign more status to formal writers? If so, that would explain a common to-me-puzzling lack of interest in being good at analysis or story-telling.

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  • Lake

    Such formal style indicates high status in quite a straightforward way: if you write like a mandarin, you might in fact be a mandarin. The other two modes suggest a lack of the high-handed guardedness and defensive monotony that officials of all kinds seem to have to learn.

  • IVV

    I personally don’t give more status to the formal writer because of the formality. I like the analysis and narrative more, myself, and prefer to be around people who are also more analytical and narrativist.

    It’s possible, in fact likely, that a formal writer will gain more status among those who like formal writing. In essence, it’s demonstrating not higher status, but affiliation.

    Could it be possible that the formal writers appear more status-driven because they are looking for status in a place that you or I would not look for it? The analytical or the narrativist might be equally status-driven, but we don’t see it as readily because of confirmation bias.

    • http://www.gwern.net/About gwern

      > I personally don’t give more status to the formal writer because of the formality. I like the analysis and narrative more, myself, and prefer to be around people who are also more analytical and narrativist.

      And why do you believe that you don’t?

      > Little wonder that Pennebaker’s “primary rule of word counting” is “Don’t trust your instincts.” Mere mortals, as opposed to infallible computers, are woefully bad at keeping track of the ebb and flow of words, especially the tiny, stealthy ones that most interest Pennebaker. Those are the “style” or “function” words, which, along with pronouns, include articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions — all of the connective tissue of language. We’re reasonably good at picking up on “content words”: nouns, action verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But “function words are almost impossible to hear,” Pennebaker warns, “and your stereotypes about how they work may well be wrong.” (Quizzes at Pennebaker’s Web site allow readers to demonstrate just how wrong we usually get things.)

      • IVV

        >And why do you believe that you don’t?

        Because I’m not all that well-read.

  • http://hopefullyanonymous.blogspot.com Hopefully Anonymous

    My sense is that the highest status people tend to be above par narrative communicators. A good narrative communicator has Erving Goffman type skills -in his language they are good at microsocial status games even if they cover their ability, interest, and techniques with regards to those games.

  • bellisaurius

    I think this article more precisely answers your question: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/books/review/the-secret-life-of-pronouns-by-james-w-pennebaker-book-review.html?pagewanted=all

    He addresses status seeking and the use of first person singular: for example

    But even more counterintuitively, Pennebaker argues that Obama isn’t somehow being humble or insecure in his low frequency of first-person pronouns; in fact, his language use reveals him to be quite self-­confident. Speakers displaying self-­assurance have a lower frequency of I-words, even though most people would assume the opposite. So the knock on Obama may indicate that listeners can properly discern his self-confidence (along with what Pennebaker calls his “emotional distance”) but then attribute this quality to precisely the wrong details of his speaking.

  • burger flipper

    What was the book you recommended a year or two back on effectively writing in the formal style (I think maybe you said it was one of the best books you’d read on any topic)?

  • jeff

    English teachers in High School (try to) teach people to write in a very particular way, and now I wonder whether the explicit how-to-teach-that guides talk in a way such that you could identify their goal as the same as the description of formal writing you have above. I also wonder if English teachers, asked to grade these samples for their class, would give higher grades to formal over analytical. I know from experience that most English teachers view storytelling writing as not adequate for essays. Also, see Paul Graham’s essay on the essay.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Using a lot of informal constructions, vernacular phrases, obscenity, and even grammar errors is a powerful signal that the writer considers himself to be above (such low-level, easy-to-detect) status concerns.

  • Lord

    Perhaps people who write formally simply aren’t good at it or enjoy it. The focus is the communication of information in a simple direct matter of fact way. It may be common for students who aren’t the most fluent and for the aged who aren;t the most patient. I don’t think there is much status in status seeking, but they may be more doers than thinkers, so may be stronger achievers though less creative. Middle management or mundane executives perhaps.

  • Michael Wengler

    At around my second year of graduate school, I no longer blamed myself for not understanding a scientific talk, I blamed the speaker. At that point in my fields of expertise anyway, I shifted from being impressed by formal to being impressed by analysis and narrative (motivating analysis).

    I suspect I am still buffaloed by formaltiy in fields in which I am not expert, although I suspect less so than the average. I believe I naturally tend towards narrative and analysis, and can still recall getting a C on one of my first college English essays for referring to Sylvia Plath as “Sylvia” which my (female) professor commented “if this had been a male would you have referred to him by his first name?” Formal matters when you are trying to become a mandarin.

  • http://alexandra-thorn.dreamwidth.org Alexandra Thorn

    See, this is why so-called “ideological Turing tests” can never really be trusted.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    So do readers assign more status to formal writers?

    You know they do: classic prose is formal writing. (It is also far-mode writing. ( http://tinyurl.com/cdzotb4 ).)

    Having finally got hold of Pennebaker’s book, I can confirm that the counterposition of the three “types” is misleading. Extracted by factor analysis, formal, analytic, and narrative are independent dimensions. You can still speak of types (based on relative strengths), but writers can be high on all of them or low on all of them. In other words, they can be thought of as skills—in formality, analysis, and narration.

    To answer your question (while there are no doubt more subterranean reasons), the reason formal writers get more status is that one cannot be simply formal: a writer must necessarily combine formality with analysis, narration, or both. Analysis and narration relate to content; formality relates to style: its opposite is immediacy. At least to a first approximation, a formal writer is an analytic or narrative thinker who also knows how to write.

    Narration can be formal or informal. An example of formal narrative is “War and Peace.” An example of informal narrative is a harlequin romance.

    (Formality as ability isn’t quite apparent in Pennebaker’s brief [even in his book] discussion of these styles, as he tends to describe formality pejoratively. I put this down to his own near-mode style.)

    For anyone interested in classic prose (or the somewhat related “practical style”), I have recently stated what I regard as its first principle. (“Constructing sentences for precise emphasis: The fundamental principle of advanced writing” — http://tinyurl.com/lz4btsl )

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      The three dimensions also line up (my idea, not Pennebaker’s) with three fundamental social drives: power, achievement, and affiliation (formal, analytic, and narrative).

      (Formality is required to influence intellectual elites; influence=power.)

      Insight:The ambivalence folks harbor toward formal writing expresses the human ambivalence (which you’ve noted) toward power.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I deal with formal writing style in relation to status aspirations and power in Psychological roots of writers’ resistance to clarityhttp://tinyurl.com/lcla389 .

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    ‘Reflective’ also verges on ‘narrative’ and formal sometimes can mingle with ‘analytical’ too. This piece is a great analysis itself. Good read.

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