Black tie blunders: what formal writing really means

Friday, October 7, 2016
by Kate Stericker

Particularly for students who are new to university, formal writing can be an intimidating concept. Many students begin their first-year courses with the belief that the understanding of formality they developed in high school will be useless to them in this new environment. It seems reasonable to assume that university professors will expect a standard of formality far higher than what was seen as acceptable in Grade 12. This belief is coupled with the misconception that formality is synonymous with complexity--that, if they really want to produce formal writing, their words must get bigger and their sentences longer. However, these same students often receive feedback on their papers which seems to criticize the steps they took to maximize formality. Where did they go wrong?

The problem lies in the distinction between writing which seems formal and writing that really is formal. After all, not every man wearing a tie and suit jacket is ready to attend a formal party:

Man in a formal suit standing beside a man in a ridiculous blue suit

While it is important to remain conscious of formality when writing university papers, you’re unlikely to see positive results unless you understand what formal writing is--and what it isn’t. Read on to learn how formal writing differs from informal.

What is Formal Writing?

For students who are confused about how to write formally, it can be helpful to think of formal writing in terms of a specific set of rules. This approach allows student to avoid the problems that arise when they try to produce writing that simply “looks” or “feels” formal--and, if the rules are followed correctly, the finished work should do both!

  1. Avoid slang terms, swear words, and clichés. While it’s true that using slang, swearing, and peppering in clichés can be a great way to relate to your audience in an informal context, these elements of speech have no place in formal writing. It’s easy to understand why you shouldn’t drop an obscenity in the middle of an annotated bibliography or describe a literary character as “bummed that their lover kicked it,” but some students struggle to identify clichés in their writing and recognize why they should be eliminated. In essence, clichés are phrases that have become so overused that people no longer interpret each word individually; instead, the entire expression is viewed as shorthand for a certain concept or idea. Examples that often appear in students’ writing include ‘at the end of the day,’ ‘for all intents and purposes,’ and ‘in any way, shape, or form.’ During the proofreading process, these expressions may not stand out as strongly as slang terms because they do not seem inherently informal or inappropriate; it is easy to imagine saying one of these phrases while speaking with a professor or a boss. However, while clichés may be acceptable in conversation, they do not belong in formal writing. It’s always better to communicate an idea using precise, original wording than to rely on a clichéd expression.
  2. Avoid first-person pronouns. In most cases, directly referring to yourself using pronouns such as ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine’ is inappropriate in formal writing. Similarly, referring to the reader with second-person pronouns like ‘you’ and ‘your’ creates a jarring effect. Even if you understand that these pronouns shouldn’t be used, they often sneak into first drafts in the form of phrases like “in my opinion” or “I believe.” If you’re unsure whether you managed to eliminate all first- and second-person pronouns in a paper, performing a quoted search in a program like Microsoft Word can be an effective way to catch the few that may have slipped past your radar.
    Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. In the case of a formal paper where you have been asked to present your own experiences or opinions in relation to a topic, personal pronouns may be entirely appropriate. Remember that the final authority on what’s acceptable in a formal paper is the person who will be evaluating it--if you’re unsure, just ask your professor or TA!
  3. Avoid contractions and abbreviations. When you’re writing a text or an email, it makes perfect sense to save time by using short forms, like ‘tbc’ for ‘to be clear’ and ‘US’ for ‘United States.’ Similarly, when you’re writing a casual blog entry or narrative, it’s natural to use contractions like ‘doesn’t’ for ‘does not’ and ‘you’re’ for ‘you are.’ However, in formal writing, neither of these techniques is acceptable. Words and phrases must be written out in their full form.
    As always, there are a few exceptions. For example, if you’re writing a paper which mentions a long title or lengthy term several times, it may be appropriate to abbreviate the name. However, to ensure your readers understand your meaning, the term should be written out in full the first time it is mentioned with the abbreviation shown in brackets. For instance, once you write “the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC),” you can continue to refer to this organization as ‘IUPAC’ throughout your paper.
    The rule against using contractions is less flexible, but it’s important to keep in mind that this rule only applies to your original words. Contractions which occur within quotations are perfectly fine; it’s not your responsibility to clean up other authors’ informalities!

These simple rules will go a long way towards ensuring that your writing holds up to an academic standard. However, old habits can be hard to break. If you’ve convinced yourself that formal writing must be as complex as possible, it can be difficult to judge which parts of your paper add genuine value and which should be cut. Tune back in next week for the second part of this post, where we’ll discuss strategies you can use to make your writing as clear as possible without sacrificing formality!

Works Cited

“Formal vs. Informal Writing.” Kaplan University Writing Center. Kaplan University, 2013, Accessed  5 Oct. 2016.

Hurtado, Juan. “9 Tips for Formal Writing Style.” Prompt Writing Center. Prompt, 30 June 2016, Accessed 6 Oct. 2016.

“Avoiding Clichés.” OxfordWords Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, 2016, Accessed 7 Oct. 2016.