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.