Black tie blunders, part 2: how to correct formality errors

Friday, October 21, 2016
by Kate Stericker

In last week’s post, we covered the many misconceptions that exist around the concept of formal writing, with a particular emphasis on the belief that formal writing should be full of polysyllabic words and complicated sentences. As we discussed, formality in writing is all about following a specific set of conventions and has almost nothing to do with shoehorning big words into your work. As long as you’re observing all the right rules, the writing you produce should always hold up to an academic standard.

However, old habits can be hard to break. If you’ve convinced yourself that formal writing must be full of fancy embellishments, you might find that your natural writing style continues to reflect this belief. In this post, we’ll discuss how to identify passages in your writing which are intended to be formal but come off as overblown, then outline a helpful technique for resolving these problems. Not every woman in fancy clothes is ready for a formal networking event, but, after this post, you’ll be making the fashion-forward choice every time.

woman in puffy prom dress standing beside woman in business suit

Images from LoveToKnow and Pinterest

Identifying Problematic Areas

When I’m working with a student to revise a piece of writing, the first thing I do is read it aloud. Once I’m finished, I ask if the student noticed any issues while they were listening to their work. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a response like ‘the sentences seemed kind of long’ or ‘it was a little wordy.’ During the writing process, it’s easy to let your work get out of control. Often, a sentence will start out simple but grow increasingly complex as you proofread a draft and add a few more details with each pass. Because an extra adverb or a new non-restrictive clause doesn’t seem like a big deal, you may not notice how confusing a sentence has become until you’re reading your work aloud. However, if you bump into a line like, “This passage contains a compelling and complex example of pathetic fallacy, a commonly-used literary technique in which feelings that would usually be more typically applied to human people are instead applied to non-human things, which may include animals or even inanimate things like weather and natural objects,” and find yourself gasping for breath by the end, you’ll likely realize that something is up.

Once you’ve identified an excessively lengthy passage in your work, your response to the situation is the most important factor. Due to the misunderstanding of formality described above, some students might misinterpret a sentence packed full of big words and nested clauses as a highly formal (and therefore positive) feature of a paper. However, in reality, these overblown sentences are a sign that some revision is in order.

Revising Your Work

Once you’ve identified a word or clause in a sentence that seems like it might be bogging things down, ask yourself a simple question: Would eliminating or simplifying this word or clause limit the meaning of the sentence? There’s an important distinction to be made between complex words which exist to clarify the meaning of a sentence and complex words which exist simply to be complex. For instance, consider the following two sentences:

  1. We used Microsoft Excel to generate a graph.
  2. We utilized Microsoft Excel to generate a graph.

Both sentences convey the same message: ‘we generated a graph with the help of Microsoft Excel.’ In this context, ‘use’ and ‘utilize’ have identical definitions; neither one conveys more detail or nuance than the other. However, ‘utilize’ is three times longer than ‘use’ and much more likely to trip a reader up, particularly if it appears in a sentence that’s packed with other unwieldy words. It might seem more formal, but it’s really just more complicated—cut it out!

‘Simpler is better’ isn’t a rule that applies in every situation, though. Let’s look at two more sentences to explain why not:

  1. She’s been sad all evening.
  2. She’s been melancholy all evening.

On the surface, these two sentences mean essentially the same thing. If you search for ‘sad’ in a thesaurus, ‘melancholy’ will pop up as one of the first results. However, ‘melancholy’ has very specific connotations; it describes a person who is feeling “gloomy, mournful, or dejected.” In contrast, a person who’s feeling ‘sad’ might fall anywhere on the emotional spectrum from slightly troubled to bawling and grief-stricken. If you choose to change ‘melancholy’ to ‘sad’ solely for the sake of simplicity, you’ll be reducing the sentence’s complexity of meaning—in this case, keeping the longer word is the stronger choice.

A similar rule can be applied to eliminate clauses or sentences which seem like they might exist solely to sound good rather than adding any real substance. In each case, figure out what the clause or sentence means in the simplest terms possible, then assess whether the paper would suffer if this meaning was no longer conveyed. If you feel it wouldn’t suffer, cut away! If you feel something might be lost, keep it in, but consider breaking up or restructuring your sentences to ensure that the information is being conveyed in a clear and manageable way.

Although there are plenty of techniques which can be used to wrangle formal writing gone awry, the ones described in this post tend to be fast and effective. The next time you’re worried that your formal writing might be missing the mark, check that you’re following the proper conventions, then apply these revision techniques to improve your paper before it’s time to submit. I’m confident that you’ll be churning out the academic equivalent of a classy three-piece suit before you know it.