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We have examined the rules that govern the English language, and we have learned some techniques on structure. But how does a writer make a piece of writing his own? And how does a writer add interest to his essays? The way a writer uses words and phrases to add personality to his writing is called style. A writer is to style as a figure skater is to skating. A writer can learn all the rules that make his writing correct, just as a figure skater can learn how to accomplish her jumps and footwork. But just learning the rules of grammar is not enough to create a well-written essay; learning just the rules of skating is not enough to earn a gold medal. The writer must bring his own methods and personality to his writing just as a skater must invest her own personality and flair in her performance.

Many elements combine to form a writer’s style, and, even though many of these elements can be identified, each is unique to a writer. Moreover, a good writer does not allow any elements of his style to stagnate. Rather, he continues to practice writing in order to continually improve and develop his style. We will touch briefly on how you can develop your writing style, but first let’s look at some specific elements of style.


Transitional phrases are an important element of style because they create coherence. They guide the reader from point A to point B. On the GMAT, the reader will read through your essay quickly, scoring according to his first impression of what you wrote. If your essay is choppy and does not flow well, the reader will not gain a good first impression. Therefore, it is imperative that your essay exhibits solid cohesiveness. Look at the lists below for some examples of transitional words and phrases that will help you write a smooth, coherent essay.
Agreement: also, plus, in addition, further, furthermore, moreover, additionally, to add to that, next, in accordance with, accordingly, in agreement, finally, for instance, for example, in exemplification, exemplifying that, in fact, factually speaking, in terms of, and so forth, in coordination with, along those lines, collectively speaking, generally speaking, indeed, undoubtedly, obviously, to be sure, equally.

Contrast: however, in contrast, on the contrary, on the other hand, from a different angle, nonetheless, nevertheless, but, yet, a catch to this is, sadly enough, as a hindrance, oddly enough, instead, in direct opposition, still, rather.

Result: as a result, as a consequence, consequently, thus, therefore, hence, thereby, resulting in, ultimately, in the end, finally, in the overall analysis, in hindsight, in retrospect, retrospectively, vicariously, the long term effect, as a short term result, significantly, as a major effect, effectively, heretofore, hereafter, thereafter, in short, generally, over all, concluding

Transitional words and phrases are helpful not only in linking your ideas between sentences, but also in providing cohesiveness from paragraph to paragraph. Each paragraph of your essay should include a topic sentence, which can also act as a transitional sentence. This transitional sentence should link your para­graphs by relating to some element in the preceding paragraph.
Take a look at the following example:

The size of your house will probably be a factor in how you decide to decorate. If you have a large house, you may opt for a grand, sophisticated look. Over-sized furniture and ornate fixtures will complement solid-colored walls accented with artwork. On the other hand, a cozy look suits a smaller home. This look can be achieved by choosing less formal furniture, simple accents and warm colors. Equally, patterned wall-coverings add a lovely touch to a small home.
Regardless of the size of your house, your financial situation will also likely play a large role in the style of décor you choose. Limited funds may force you to make some of your own decorations, like curtains and knick knacks. However, unlimited funds may offer the option of hiring an interior decorator to do all the work for you.


The first sentence of the second paragraph is not only the topic sentence of the paragraph (it lets the reader know what the paragraph will be about), but also the transitional sentence that links the two paragraphs.
Notice that the phrase “Regardless of the size of your house” refers to the topic of the first paragraph, thereby tying together the topics of both paragraphs. In addition, the word “also” in this sentence indicates that a second factor of decorating is being introduced.
Other more subtle transitions occur in the first paragraph.
For example, “over-sized furniture” in the third sentence refers to the “large house” in the preceding sentence. This provides a transition without using a transitional word.
Notice further that “large” is part of the subordinate clause in the second sentence but “over-sized” is part of the main subject in the third sentence, thus providing transition while also giving the reader some variety in sentence pattern. (We will discuss varying your sentences later on.)
More obvious are the transitional words we discussed previously.
In the first paragraph, for example, the phrase “On the other hand” depicts the contrast between a large and a small house while “equally” continues the thoughts pertaining to a cozy home. In the second paragraph, “However” is used to show contrast in a pattern much like in the first paragraph.
Using transitions, both subtle and obvious, in your sentences and between paragraphs is essential in creating cohesiveness in your essay. Without this clarity, your essay will likely be choppy and difficult for the scorer to read and understand. A word of caution, however, before we move on: Since time is limited on the writing assessment sections, you must be concise and to the point. Be careful not to overuse transitional words and phrases because overuse can make you sound like a pedantic writer rather than an intelligent one.

Varying Your Sentences

No matter how well your essay flows, the reader will easily get bored if your essay consists only of sentences that contain the same words and follow the same structure. Consider this paragraph:
Dogs are smarter than cats. They are often used to help handicapped people. Dogs help blind people. Dogs also help epileptic people. Dogs can sense when an epileptic person is about to have a seizure. Dogs are also used in rescue work. They help rescue skiers. They also help in catastrophic events. They rescue people after earthquakes.
There are several things wrong with this paragraph:
  • Almost every sentence is the same length.
  • The structure in each sentence is almost identical: Subject + Verb + Direct Object.
  • The same words are used over and over: “dogs,” “they,” “also,” “help,” “rescue.”
  • No description is used to further illustrate the writer’s points.
To add more interest to your writing, you need to vary your sentence length and structure. Try different beginnings for your sentences. Employ a variety of words and use these words to paint a vivid picture of your subject.
Let’s apply these tips to the paragraph above:

Dogs are more intelligent than your average feline. A cat cannot, for example, guide a blind person across busy streets and along crowded sidewalks. Amazingly enough, a dog is also a perfect companion for a person with epilepsy because a dog seems to be able to sense when a seizure is coming on. While dogs help keep the handicapped away from danger, they also aid in rescuing people who have fallen victim to dangerous situations, like skiers trapped in an avalanche. Moreover, when catastrophic events, like earthquakes, leave victims pinned beneath debris and rubble, a canine team often comes to the rescue.

A good way to vary your sentences is to begin them in different ways. For example, you could begin your sentence with the subject and predicate and then build on them using various words and phrases. This type of sentence is called a cumulative sentence. By contrast, in a periodic sentence, you use words and phrases to build up to the subject and the predicate at the end of the sentence.
Here are some examples:

Cumulative sentence:
The energetic children played hard, chasing each other in all directions, occasionally falling and then scrambling to their feet, giggling at each other’s antics and never stopping for even a moment to catch their breath.
Periodic sentence:
With flour in her hair, dough in between her fingers and sauce all over her face, she attempted to make a gourmet pizza.
Both types of sentences not only add variety, but also bring rhythm and cadence to writing. This rhythm creates interest and is pleasant to the reader. Additionally, descriptive words paint a clear picture for the reader.

Figurative Language

Another excellent way to paint vivid pictures for your reader is to use figures of speech. Figures of speech—like similes, metaphors, analogies, personification, hyperbole, irony, and allusion—when used correctly, add extra flair to your writing. They add to your style of writing an element that takes your writing from ordinary to extraordinary.

Similes show a marked comparison between two things by using the phrases “like,” “as,” or “as if.”


The cat stood poised and still as a statue, waiting for the opportune moment to pounce.

Here the cat is described “as a statue” because it is standing so still.

Metaphors show absolute comparison by omitting “like,” “as,” or “as if.”



She is Mother Theresa when it comes to her generosity and compassion.

Here the comparison is absolute because the writer states that this person is Mother Theresa; the writer does not say that this person is just like Mother Theresa.
Analogies compare the similar features of two dissimilar things. Analogies often bring clarity to writing by showing a reader another way of seeing something. Analogies are not limited to a sentence; sometimes an analogy streams its way through an entire piece of writing.


Office cooperation is like a soccer game. Each employee has a position on the playing field, and each position dictates an employee’s function. Working together, the office completes passes by communicating well within each department. Shots on goal are taken when employees meet with prospective clients to pitch ideas. And the whole office triumphs when a goal is scored and a prospect becomes a client.

Here one element, an office working together, is compared to another, a soccer team playing a game. Although an office and a soccer team are two very unrelated things, the writer sees similarities in some aspects between the two and uses these similarities to show more clearly how an office works together.
Personification gives human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects and ideas in order to make them more real and understandable.


The rusty car groaned, coughed, then gave one last sputter and died.

The car in this sentence comes to life even as it “dies” because of the human characteristics it is given.
Hyperbole uses deliberate exaggeration or overstatement to show special emphasis or create humor.


Fat-free foods have become so popular that soon all vendors will want to give it a shot. Before you know it, Kentucky Fried Chicken will have fat-free fried chicken. Big Macs will contain 0 grams of fat. And the amount of fat in a Pizza Hut cheese pizza? You guessed it—none!

In order to show how far out of hand peoples’ obsession with fat-free foods has become, this description purposefully exaggerates a world where the most unlikely things are fat-free.
Irony uses language that makes a suggestion that directly contrasts with the literal word or idea. It can offer humor to writing, or a bitter tone when it is used in sarcasm.


Scientists have worked hard to develop ways to decrease infant mortality rates and increase longevity. As a result, more people are living longer and scientists will soon have to develop some methods with which to control overpopulation.

This sentence uses irony by predicting that, because scientists have now discovered ways to increase a person’s life span, they will soon have to deal with another problem—overpopulation. This is because, with everyone living longer, there will soon be too many people for the earth to support.
Allusion makes indirect reference to known cultural works, people or events. The familiarity allusions bring to writing helps the writer make connections with the reader.


I have so much to do today, I feel like David must have felt as he approached Goliath.

Most people are familiar with the Bible story of David and Goliath. David is a small shepherd who slays the giant, Goliath, with a slingshot and one stone after the army’s best soldiers fail. Even through his feat, however, David must have felt a bit intimidated when facing Goliath, a feeling this writer intimates when thinking about everything that needs to be done.

Figures of speech to avoid

Clichés are overused phrases that prevent your writing from being fresh and original, so don’t use clichés like “Cute as a button” or “Busy as a bee.”

Mixed metaphors are comparisons that are not consistent; they only cause confusion.
For example, “The infant was like a baby bird, opening his cavernous well for food.” Here the simile that an infant is like a baby bird holds true, but the following words that equate the baby’s mouth to a cavernous well are not consistent.

The words you choose will greatly affect the tone of your essay. Likewise, the tone you wish to achieve will depend on your audience. In this case, you know your audience will consist of men and women who will be quickly reading your essay and then assigning a score based on their impression and how well you handled the topic. Knowing this, you will want to use a professional, formal tone, the kind you will probably use in most of your graduate work. Using a formal tone means that you will want to keep some distance between you, the writer, and your audience, the scorer. Be courteous and polite but avoid being chummy or intimate in any way. Furthermore, you should avoid all colloquialisms and slang.

While tone defines the overall language you use, diction deals with the specific kinds of words and phrases you choose for your essay. Since you have already determined your audience and thus ascertained that you need to portray a formal tone in your essay, you must be consistent with your diction, or word choice. Diction may be classified as technical (homo sapien rather than human), formal (Please inform me when you are ready to depart.), informal or colloquial (Give me a buzz when you’re ready to go.), or slang (She’s a real couch potato and watches the tube from early morning ‘til the cows come home.) Knowing that your audience dictates a formal tone, you must also be consistent in maintaining formal diction.
Look at the following example of inconsistent diction:


Violence in schools has become an epidemic problem. School shootings occur regularly, and fights erupt daily in the nation’s classrooms. Even with the addition of metal detectors at school entrances, violence will never be eradicated because the jocks are always ganging up on the geeks. If only we could just all get along.

This example begins with a formal tone and formal diction; however, it takes a quick turn when the writer uses slang words like “jocks” and “geeks.” The paragraph is concluded informally with “If only we could just all get along.”

As you write your essay, and later when you proofread it, you will want to make sure that you preserve the formality your audience requires.

It is important to maintain consistency in person.
For example, if you begin your essay in second person (you) do not shift to third person (he, she, it, one, or they). Let’s look at a couple of examples illustrating a shift in person:


One can get excellent grades in school if you study hard.

The switch from “one” to “you” is confusing and awkward.


Off the coast of Puerto Rico, on the island of Vieques, is an old French mansion turned hotel. Here one can enjoy spacious guest rooms and a cozy library. One can lounge around the pool and indulge in the honorary pool bar. Because the hotel is not far from the ocean, you can also take a leisurely walk down to the white sandy beach where one can spend a lazy day basking in the sun.

The switch from one to you is confusing in this paragraph and detracts from the imagery. Decide from the beginning of your essay what person you wish to employ and make a conscious effort to stick to it.

Developing Your Style

Your goal as a writer is to create interest and coherence through your unique writing style. Using figures of speech and maintaining consistent use of tone, diction and person are effective ways to create interest. Using transitions creates coherence. Also remember that part of creating coherence is being concise. Use only the details that are necessary to support your topic and avoid tedious description. This is not to say that you should avoid vivid imagery, but that you should take care to ensure that your information adds to your writing rather than detracts from your writing.

In taking all of these elements of style into account, the most important aspect to remember about developing your style is that it only comes through practice. Practice your writing and proofread, proofread, proofread. If you do all of these things, you will be well on your way to becoming an effective, skillful writer. Are you ready to start practicing? Let’s move on and discuss the two different essays you will be asked to write.

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