Tone & Style: levels of formality

Formality, and the correct level thereof, is also very important.  There are three main levels, and countless sub-levels of formality in writing.  Textbooks are almost always formal–they avoid writing from a first person perspective–and notes to family members are almost always informal.  Your purpose for writing and your target audience will sort of dictate your level of formality.  It’s your job to understand what level you need to choose, based on your intent in writing, and to whom you are writing.


The most formal styles of writing avoid first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine; you, your, us/we, our).  They also avoid colloquial expressions, and even contractions.  You’ll find that the most formal level of writing uses a lot of third person pronouns…and a lot of passive voice (using verbs that describe a state of being, rather than a state of action).  This is the level used in high academic writing, in legal writing, and in journalism.


This style is looser and more forgiving.  You can use first person and contractions, but you still need to avoid colloquialisms and second person.  You’ll be able to use “I think,” and “in my opinion;” however, you’ll want to avoid the phrase “to me,” especially in beginning a sentence.  You’ll find the writing in semi-formal essays more interesting, partially because it’s closer to the way people speak every day, and partially because it’s far easier to use active verbs when you can use first person.  This is the level used in most academic papers, in journalistic blogging, in professional and academic emails, and in things like letters to the editor or to your local congressperson.


This is the most forgiving level.  When writing informally, you can use first person or second, colloquialisms, and even slang.  This is the closest to everyday speech–if you use a non-standard dialect of English, informal writing is the only place it’s appropriate.  You’ll find it used often emails and social networking posts, in notes to friends and families, and often in blogging.  You shouldn’t use it in professional or academic emails, or in formal communication with a congressperson or newspaper–it gives a very poor impression.

Which should you choose?  Well, what are you writing?  I will admit that I used a cross between the semi-formal  and informal levels of writing in my textbook, and in my blog.  I deliberately made that choice because of my audience and my purpose: I am not writing to those who already are familiar with the techniques used in successful writing and why they’re used, but to those who may know this on an instinctive level, but not a conscious level, nor why it works.  I’m writing to instruct those who want to learn a bit more about how to write, and why the tools work like they do.

No, I don’t write about how to do fiction–that’s not what I teach in my day job.  What I’m doing here, with these posts, is to share the most important things that I’ve learned my students–and everyone else–most need to know.

Hence…the blend between informal and semi-formal.  I want you, my readers, to be comfortable with the tone of my posts (and, hopefully, interested by the content), but I also want you to take me seriously, and maybe learn a little bit along the way.

…and more goals…and stuff.

I bought new measuring spoons…and pretty much immediately found the ones I’d spent a couple of weeks looking for.  I have made cookies…and they are wonderful.

I got almost all of my revised textbook done.  I’ve got one sample essay left to write, so I’m pleased with my progress, there.  Maybe I can get the stress out and get some stories out.

I did not, however, get the closet hardware put up.  Too busy with other things.

This week?

1. Finish the damn textbook, print it, and set it aside for a week.  Then write the last dozen or so stories for Road Trip (tentatively titled sequel to The Godshead).  I’d really like to get a draft of Resurgent (sequel to The Last Pendragon) written before classes start back up on August 19.

2. Get the living room rearranged to make a good school room area for the kids.  My son, Daniel, is getting pretty serious about learning to read and write.

3. Get the closet hardware installed, and get the dress clothes moved.

Stay tuned for another “How To Write” post later in the week.  Yes, I know–I’m focusing on non-fiction rather than fiction, but it’s what I do for a living: teach college freshmen how to coherently arrange their thoughts on paper.

Goals and stuff

I still haven’t found my measuring spoons.  No cookies yet.  But I seem to have found almost everything else (except it seems about half of my forks and spoons have managed to run off somewhere).

I’ve got as much stuff out of the laundry area as I could get out with having to referee the kids’ fights–which have been constant, lately–and dealing with a migraine.  I have a lot more to do back there, including getting the rest of the moldy carpet pulled out from under the appliances.  I also need to get the extra dresser that we have back there for flat surface and storage.

I got some writing done…and then got hit in the face with a migraine.  I managed to finish one of the stories I’d been stuck on, though.  I’ve got about twenty stories written, and twelve more stories planned.

So…goals for this week…

1. Find the damn measuring spoons, or get new ones.

2. Get the closet hardware put up in the hall bathroom closet area.  I really want to get our hang up clothes moved out of our rather small bedroom.  The closet in the bedroom isn’t an option–it’s full of a water heater and boxes of off-season clothes.

3. Write seven of the twelve short stories, or half of the revised edition of my course textbook.


We’ve talked about purpose, focus, organization, and development.  All of these issues are very important for being able to achieve what you want to with your writing.

There’s more to it than those elements, though.  You need to keep your audience in mind.

Who are you writing for?  Are you planning on persuading, or just entertaining them?  What do they need?  What do you need to do to convince them that your argument is right, if you’re being persuasive?

Say you’re trying to be persuasive.  Say you have a proposal for something, and it’s something you really want done.  First question: who can get done what you want done?

For example, say you’re a college student, and you want to get the chairs in a particular classroom replaced.  They’re ugly, uncomfortable, and completely unsafe–the rivets are loose, several bits are broken, and most of the desks feel like they could simply fall apart when the students sit down in them.

Who is your audience?  Who can change that?  The university president?  He’d take your proposal…and put it directly in the round filing cabinet next to his desk, otherwise known as the trash can.  So, who should you direct your proposal to?

What department takes care of the grounds?  With Missouri Southern, it’s the physical plant.  So.  That’s where you direct your proposal.  To whom do you direct it?  The director is probably going to react the same as the president.  The secretary can’t do anything to replace the chairs.  Neither will the paint supervisor, the guy in charge of planning the flower beds, or the guy in charge of the fire suppression systems.  Hmm…the carpentry supervisor looks promising.  So does the facilities planner.  It will sort of depend on what you want done to replace the desks.

Say you want to replace the desks with three or four long, narrow tables.  The carpentry supervisor may be who you need to direct your idea to.  How do you convince him?  What does he need to be convinced?

He needs to see that this is something that would be good for the university, because that’s what’s good for his job, and what’s best for him keeping his job, and maybe earning a bonus–or a raise.  So, how do you convince him of this?

The same way you convince any other employee of the university: point out how the desks reflect on the university.  How the ugly desks make the university look like it doesn’t care about its students or its image, how uncomfortable desks might drive enrollment elsewhere, and how a collapsing desk may lead to a student being badly hurt on university grounds by university equipment.  Then, point out the benefits of building tables and acquiring chairs.  Point out that it’s cheaper that replacing the desks with new desks, that repair for the desks isn’t really possible with their construction, and that the new, updated facilities will increase enrollment.

Do it that way, and you’re convincing your audience that what you want is in their best interests.

If you focus on what you want, and why you want it?  Yeah, they’re not gonna care.  Your standard university employee doesn’t give half a damn about the students or their comfort.  Your standard university employee only cares about their job, and about the money whatever you want will cost–or save, by avoiding possible lawsuits–the university.

Focus your arguments on what your audience wants.  What your audience cares about.  Because your audience won’t care about you (unless your audience is your parents or grandparents).

And don’t forget to maintain your focus and organization, or to adequately develop your justification of why your proposal is in your audience’s best interests.

Goals and things

Well, the kitchen is mostly back in working order, but the living room getting rearranged is going to have to wait a bit longer, since Andrew’s ankle is still really bothering him.  Best about the kitchen?  Our old portable unit dishwasher (still works great) is going to be finding a new home with some very good friends of ours.  They’ll be picking it up tomorrow.

I got a bit of writing done, but I’m still not happy with where I am.  I’m about ready to have Andrew dump the kids off with my mother for a writing day.

So, my goals for this week…

1. Finish finding everything I need to make cookies, then make cookies.

2. Work on making the laundry area more functional.  There’s still a lot of kitchen stuff in the way back there, and I don’t have a lot of flat surfaces to work with.

3. Write!!  I can do so much better than what I’ve been doing.  I want to get a story written for every day of the week.

Back to goalsetting

Because I’ve learned that, if I don’t have written goals, I get nothing done.

So, my goals for the week:

1. Get the kitchen back into working order.  We have had it in various stages of dismantled for the better part of two months, the last two weeks of it because of massive incompetence on the part of the manufacturer, Countertop Trends.  And that makes everything else in my life that much more difficult.

2. Get the house cleaned up enough that my husband doesn’t keep reinjuring his twisted ankle on kids’ toys, and makes it easier to do the next part.

3.  Rearrange the living room to make it more liveable.

4. WRITE!!!  I am capable of writing faster than what I’ve been managing.  At this rate, semester’s going to catch me with my second book only half finished in a first draft.  The messed up house is really distracting…as is a chronic lack of just enough sleep per night to make the things I need to do very hard for me to remember.

Thus…the return to the written list.