Most written work falls under one of four writing styles: expository, descriptive, narrative, or persuasive.
If you don’t remember taking a quiz on these in the fifth grade, don’t worry. More than likely, you’re already internalized some of their key characteristics without even realizing it.
A quick review of these styles and their techniques can help you become a better writer, while also becoming a more conscious reader.
The 4 Writing Styles
Before you get to punching away at your keyboard, you should ask yourself: Why am I writing this? Is it to explain? Describe? Teach? Persuade? Entertain?
You may achieve several of these in one piece, but focusing in on one purpose can help you to identify the appropriate style, and therefore the right techniques.
Knowing the differences between these four styles and their most common techniques won’t just make you a more effective writer—you’ll also be a more conscious reader. For example, you’ll be able to readily identify persuasive techniques in advertisements, and easily separate facts from opinions.
In this post, we’ll discuss the four main styles of writing, their traits, common examples, and tips for how you can practice each of them more effectively.
Style 1: Expository Writing
Expository writing is written with the intent of explaining or describing something. (That may seem easy to confuse with descriptive writing, but we’ll clarify the difference in the next section.)
If you’re writing an expository piece, you’ll rely almost exclusively on facts to answer the questions of what, why, and how.
Most forms of journalism, for example, fall under the expository category because the writing is intended to “expose” the facts. It’s also the style being used in this post, because the purpose is to inform you of the four writing styles and their qualities, and not to persuade you to use one over the other.
Other examples of expository writing include:
• News articles
• How-To/Self-Help books
• Research journals and articles
• Instructional guides
• Encyclopedia articles
• Historical research
If expository writing is your intended style, be careful to avoid inserting your own opinions, which is called editorializing. Unfortunately, this part can sometimes be tricky.
Note, for example, that articles titled “5 Great Benefits of Meditation” or “10 Reasons You Should Start the Keto Diet” carry positive connotations. Even if you reference dozens of facts to support your claim, such articles should still be considered persuasive writing.
Self-help books can also be examples of expository writing, but only when they consist of researched facts. Someone might present an excellent sales pitch for their newly developed diet plan, but if they adorn their facts with persuasive language, we can’t consider their book an expository piece.
To prevent this conflation between expository and persuasive styles, try using neutral phrases, like: “Studies show that meditating five minutes a day is linked to lower blood pressure.”
In this way, you can still list the “benefits” of something, but you’ll leave it to your audience to decide if that’s the right label.
Tips for Solid Expository Writing
• Present facts, not opinions
• Answer a what, why, or how question
• Reference experts or trusted sources when possible
• Leave your personal bias at the door
• Include descriptive details, but use neutral adjectives
Style 2: Descriptive Writing
Descriptive writing allows much more creative freedom than expository, because writers are free to use imaginative language to describe a subject.
The main purpose of descriptive writing is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind of a person, place, or thing. This is best achieved through imagery and other literary devices, including similes, metaphors, and personification.
While writers have more freedom with the adjectives they choose, some words, such as “beautiful,” might not be the best descriptors. Instead, try to include more sensory details to really paint a picture for your readers.
For example, what makes the girl “beautiful”? Is it her thick, raven hair? Her melodic laughter? The loping way she walks? These details help create a more vivid image in the reader’s mind, as opposed to simple adjectives that can be open to interpretation.
By being as detailed as possible, descriptive writing can pull readers into an experience. This makes it an ideal style for many forms of fiction, including poems and songs.
Other examples of descriptive writing include:
• Personal diaries
• Travel journals
• Product descriptions in catalogs
Writers should take care to not overwhelm their readers with adjectives, however. Piling detail on top of detail can start to feel ridiculous. Focus instead on using powerful language to describe a handful of details that really help build the image. Literary devices like similes or metaphors can also be great alternatives to laundry lists of adjectives.
Tips for Solid Descriptive Writing
• Use sensory details: don’t just tell readers how something looks; when possible, tell them how it feels, sounds, smells, moves, or tastes
• Use literary devices, such as similes and metaphors
• Don’t overdo it—sometimes a little can go a long way
Style 3: Narrative Writing
Narrative writing includes most novels and works of fiction. Unlike most poems or other types of descriptive writing, narrative style involves a much more developed plot and characters.
To develop a plot, you’ll have to think about many factors: the setting, the characters, the main conflict, the resolution, the timeline, and the relationship between all of these.
Whereas descriptive writing can be considered a window through which we can view a character or thing, narrative writing should typically present the full picture.
Other examples of narrative writing include:
• Film or television screenplays
• Epic poems
• Short stories
It is worth noting that narrative writing isn’t limited to just fictitious content. Even stories of real-life events, along with memoirs and biographies, can be considered narrative writing so long as they tell a story with a plot, character(s), and setting.
While it would require another post to tell you everything about writing a great novel, here are some things to remember when starting to write a narrative:
• Take time to develop your storyline and characters, complete with a conflict, resolution, and setting
• Think about the sequence of events and how everything will flow
• Determine the point of view—whose story will it be?
Style 4: Persuasive Writing
Persuasive techniques are often used by politicians, salespeople, critics, and—most likely—by you, if you’ve ever wanted to convince someone of something.
Unlike expository writing, persuasive writing can demonstrate the writer’s biases and opinions. However, using facts to support your ideas and claims can be a very effective technique.
The goal of persuasive writing is to get the reader to take action—by agreeing with you, by voting a certain way, by buying a product, or by giving you whatever it is you’re asking for.
Examples of Persuasive Writing include:
• Policy proposals
• Advertisements and marketing
• Cover letters
It’s not enough to simply tell readers what you want and what you think; unless you’re their customer, you’re going to have to appeal to them on a deeper level.
Persuasive Writing Tips and Techniques
Appeal to ethics (aka ethos): Refer to an expert or respected authority in the field to demonstrate credibility in your argument.
Appeal to emotion (aka pathos): Use a powerful anecdote or passionate plea to get an emotional response from your audience.
Appeal to logic (aka logos): Use reason to appeal to your audience through indisputable facts or statistics.
Cite your sources: Prove that your information is reliable and give your readers access to more information.
Consider your audience’s needs and wants: By appealing to their needs and wants, they will feel personally invested in the issue.
Learning to master these persuasive techniques can help you with your writing, as well as your professional goals. Try using them in your next cover letter or marketing proposal!
Practice These Writing Styles
While you probably prefer some of these styles over the others, practicing every type can keep great writers on their toes. Check out some of our helpful writing exercises to keep your writing game at its best!
What is your favorite writing style? Feel free to share in the comments below!