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Write Formally

What Does It Mean to Write Formally?

Jan 27, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General

"Write formally!"

No matter the subject or style of paper, it's a command that students hear from all their teachers. You've probably been told the same thing when working on an English paper, a biology research project, or an in-class history essay. But what does it really mean when your teacher tells you that a paper should be formal?

What is formal writing?

Even though written and spoken English might seem exactly the same, there are actually a lot of differences between the way we speak and the way we write. In general, spoken English is much more casual. We're creating sentences on the fly, so to speak, which means there's a lot more leeway when it comes to word choice, sentence construction, and grammatical mistakes. If you listen closely to a conversation, you'll notice that most speakers play pretty loose with the rules of English. They will use run-on sentences, conjugate verbs incorrectly, and mix up similar sounding words regularly, but we don't notice or correct them as long as we can get the general idea of what somebody is trying to say (if you did try to correct everyone, you'd have a lot of work to do, and not a lot of friends left by the end).
When it comes to written English, though, you're aren't given nearly as much room for error. Think about when you speak: if you make a grammatical error, chances are the conversation will move quickly past it, and there won't be any record of what you said. In writing, however, your mistakes are there in front of the reader in stark black and white. Mistakes that get glossed over in conversation are glaringly obvious in print, and they detract from the quality of your work. When teachers tell you to write formally, they're calling attention to this difference. To write formally means to follow the specific grammar and style rule for written English.

Rules of formal writing

Tone

Formal writing should be professional and not overly friendly or conversation. When you're writing papers, it should sound like you're addressing your teacher or professor, not your best friend. You'll find that many of the items on this list ultimately boil down to this basic idea, so it's important that you understand how things like word choice and sentence structure will influence the tone of your work.
The tone should also be objective, meaning you shouldn't show emotion in your work. Instead, just relay your points as effectively and succinctly as possible. This means you shouldn't make personal judgments or use biased language: there should be some distance between you, the writer, and the reader. Your teacher should finish the paper feeling like he or she has learned something about the topic of your paper; they shouldn't put down your work having learned anything about your personality or who you are as a person.

Diction

Diction, or word choice, is one of the most important ways to differentiate between formal and informal writing. A lot of the language we use in our everyday lives isn't considered appropriate for written English, although it can sometimes be difficult to know whether a word is formal or informal. There's no hard rule for identifying casual wording, but in general if it's a word or phrase that you'd use in an informal chat but that can be replaced with a phrase that might sound stuffy if you used it with your friends, you should chose the latter. Below are a few examples of how to swap out informal for formal wording:
Incorrect
How come the folks didn't respond?
Correct
Why did the people not respond?
Incorrect
It seems iffy that such a smart kid would want to run away.
Correct
It seems unlikely that such an intelligent child would want to run away.
Word choice also means being aware of figures of speech, slang, and cliches. Phrases like "give an arm and a leg" or "on the fast track" are perfectly fine when speaking but should be avoided when writing.
Incorrect
Every cloud has a silver lining, and in some ways Nick benefits from the tragedies that shook his world.
Correct
Often it's the case that good can arise from tragedy, and in some ways Nick benefits from the events that changed his life that summer.

Person

Part of what provides the distance between the author and reader of formal works is the use of the third person. The author avoids drawing attention to himself by staying away from words like I, we, or us, and also doesn't specifically address the reader with the word you.
Incorrect
We ran the test three time.
Correct
The test was run three times.

Abbreviations

Formal writing should avoid abbreviations, including contractions (won't, he'll) and common slang (photos, info).

Grammar

Written English should strictly follow grammatical rules. There should be no run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers, or other mistakes in syntax. In conversational English and in informal writing (e.g., creative writing, poetry), it is often acceptable to bend the rules of written English to create an effect, but in formal papers you should adhere to these rules.
Incorrect
The writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald shows off his keen observational skills like when he describes Gatsby's parties or Daisy's behavior toward her daughter. These scenes are full of life and sadness.
Correct
The writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald shows off his keen observational skills. For example, the descriptions of Gatsby's parties and Daisy's behavior toward her daughter are full of life and sadness.

Conjunctions

In formal writing it's generally frowned on to start sentences with a conjunction (e.g. and, but, or). While it's not technically incorrect, it will make your paper seem more casual.
Incorrect
Gatsby loves Daisy and wants to be with her. But she doesn't not love him back in the same way.
Correct
Gatsby loves Daisy and wants to be with her, but she doesn't love him back in the same way.

Punctuation

Punctuation that's used as an abbreviation, for examples ampersands (&) and dashes (-), should be left out of formal writing. Also avoid exclamation points; they will make your work look childish and less objective.
Incorrect
Gatsby is in denial for most of the book-it really is amazing how little he understands Daisy!
Correct
Gatsby is in denial for most of the book; it really is amazing how little he understands Daisy.

Sentence structure

In formal writing, you're expected to use more complicated sentence structure than you do while speaking. This means you should make use of compound and complex sentences. It will make your writing look more polished and professional.
Incorrect
Nick is Gatsby's neighbor. He narrates the story. He proves himself to be a reliable narrator over the course of the novel. His retelling of Gatsby's story can be taken as authentic.
Correct
The story is narrated by Nick, Gatsby's neighbor. He proves himself to be a reliable narrator over the course of the novel, and his retelling of Gatsby's story can be taken as authentic.
Following all these rules might seem like a difficult task, but with practice the habits of writing formally can become second nature. Just remember, formal writing is all about writing for your audience. Your teacher or professor wants to know that you're taking your work seriously, which means showing them that you can take the time to write in formal English. If you want to put your best foot forward, what you put on the page should be much more polished than what comes out of your mouth.
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