Formal vs. Informal Writing


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Writing to many is about dos and don’ts, especially don’ts–don’t use first person, don’t use second person, don’t use slang, don’t use contractions, don’t use hyperbole. Don’t, don’t, don’t. And of course these “don’ts” are usually couched within the context of formal vs. informal writing in that the don’ts apply to formal writing and what you don’t want to do when writing formally. These don’ts (and others) highlight what many see as the differences between formal and informal writing. Well, I suppose so, but exceptions to rules exist, and not all writing can be so neatly categorized as either formal or informal. Certainly some writing might be what I will term semi-formal. And just because a piece of writing is less formal than formal writing doesn’t mean that’s inherently bad, which I think is sometimes the impression given. For me, how language is used in a piece of writing is less about the level of formality of the writing context and more about audience and purpose. 

First, let’s consider formal vs. informal writing with respect to APA Style. APA Style does include some “don’ts” such as to avoid using contractions and slang, but APA Style also makes it clear that its guidelines are intended for scholarly writing, and the purpose of scholarly writing is to share research and discuss findings on a narrowly defined topic, so the audience would primarily be experts in a given field. When presenting research, one wants to be taken seriously, so using a more formal writing style seems a good approach as it would help to establish the proper tone for the work. After all, what would you take more seriously?

A. The upshot of the study will blow your minds.

Or

B. The results of the study raise a number of questions worth pursuing.

The tone in the first example is too colloquial and casual. If the audience is made up of other experts in the field–researchers, scholars, academicians, educators–for the purpose of sharing and discussing serious research, then the writer would be wise to adopt a more formal usage of language in this writing context. To ignore what is surely a standard expectation of scholarly writing would risk alienating the audience. Not being aware of the writing context and dressing up your prose appropriately is akin to being invited to a big-deal gala, an invitation-only black-tie affair and showing up wearing shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers. You wouldn’t be taken seriously, would you? With this in mind, the audience and purpose in this example dictate that more formal writing be used. It just makes sense. 

Conversely, if you wrote a text to a good friend to invite him to a weekend barbeque, you wouldn’t write, Dear Friend, I would be honored by your presence at a barbeque Saturday, July 20, at 2 PM sharp. Food and beverages will be provided by the hosts. Casual attire required. RSVP no later than–you get the idea. The audience and purpose in this scenario would be alienated by the unnecessarily formal prose, not to mention utterly flabbergasted and perhaps even a little concerned. Clearly, a text to a good friend is an occasion for informal writing that might even include abbreviated words. Make sense?

I am often in the minority when people rail against the evils of texting and how it’s the downfall of an orderly and civilized world. “Texting is ruining people’s ability to write complete and grammatically correct sentences,” they will say. “Before we know it, sentences will be nothing but abbreviations.” Well, I’m not so sure. I get the idea that when textspeak creeps into some writing contexts, a problem exists. But doesn’t the issue all come down to audience and purpose? Perhaps the issue isn’t so much texting itself, but, rather, people’s failure to consider audience and purpose appropriately? 

Further, doesn’t language usage evolve over time to reflect a changing culture? After all, we have new words in the English language this year that we didn’t have last year. And how many of you have received an email from your boss with such abbreviations as FYI or SME? Think of the abbreviations that are already used regularly and in many different writing contexts–TBA, FAQ, AKA, NNTR, and everyone’s favorite, TGIF. Would I use an abbreviation like these in an academic paper? Unless the point of the paper were to discuss textspeak or a related topic, of course not! Have I received emails from higher ups that include such abbreviations as NNTR or COB? Yes, I have, and I see nothing wrong with it. Communication and the formality of the language used is all about audience and purpose, and for written communication to be effective, the writer must consider audience and purpose carefully. EOD.

You might be thinking, ok, I get the difference between formal and informal writing situations, but what about the middle-of-the-road, hard-to-tell, not-so-black-and-white writing occasions? What’s the best approach in these kinds of situations? 

Just like there are back-yard barbeques and black-tie affairs, there are also semi-formal and business-casual events. Appropriate language use still comes down to audience and purpose. 

Let’s say your’re writing a blog post for an educational audience made up of primarily educators, students, and administrators. Your purpose is to inform and engage and develop an ongoing readership and learning community. Perhaps even to stir up a little controversy from time to time. Does this sound like a black-tie affair or business casual? While the audience may be comprised of students and educators, a blog post that shares information is not at all the same as sharing and discussing research findings in a peer-reviewed academic journal that might be published quarterly and whose primary audience is other experts in a defined field of study. Readers of a blog usually are subscribers and thus a more informal writing style is indicative of a closer relationship between the blog and its audience, so a casual treatment of language seems appropriate even if the topic itself is a serious one. While an author of a scholarly article might not use first person, address readers directly, engage in word play, or use other rhetorical devices for effect, such an approach seems perfectly fine for a blog. 

What about college assignments such as informative or persuasive essays that include research? Without a doubt, some student papers are intended to be formal academic works in which case avoiding contractions and first person makes sense. Indeed, for many college-level assignments, a more formal approach to writing is preferred, and if one has such an assignment and has questions about just how formal the writing should be, I suggest sending an email to the professor who would be the final authority on such a matter. (And if you do email your professor, please keep your audience and purpose in mind.)

That said, without another doubt, lots of student writing is not intended to be of a scholarly nature even if it uses content from research. Some assignments ask students to conduct interviews of family members or write about an issue in the community in which they live or discuss their personal educational journey, so, for example, it seems that using first person would be essential as referring to oneself in the third person is tremendously awkward and, frankly, just plain wrong. 

Now, despite all that I’ve written, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least put on the table that regardless of writing expectations and style guide pronouncements, I have to wonder if formal academic writing wouldn’t benefit by loosening up the writing a bit so that it sounded more natural, perhaps even personable. After all, those of us who teach writing or are educators surely have told our students not to use highfalutin, polysyllabic words and unnecessarily complex sentence structures when writing just to sound more sophisticated and knowledgeable, yet (dare I say it!), isn’t that what much formal academic writing does? 

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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