Formal writing may sound like something only academics and C-suite professionals use. But it's a writing style most of us will employ at some point in our lives (if not daily). It's necessary for serious situations, like applying for a job or writing a business report.
But formal writing doesn't come easily to everyone. You can't just shove fancy words into a document and hope for the best—you have to modify your tone, sentence structure, even your punctuation.
So if you're here to refresh your resume, boost your essay grades, or simply make your emails sound more professional, keep reading...
When to use formal writing
First, we should talk about when to use formal language. It generally depends on three things:
- who you're writing to
- why you're writing
- where you're writing
If you're contacting someone you know well, like a family member or close colleague, it's safe to use informal language. It may also be acceptable if you work in marketing or customer support for a relatively casual brand (like Wendy's social media team).
However, you should use a formal tone when communicating with a stranger or someone higher-up (like your boss). For example, job applications should always use formal language to generate a strong first impression.
You should also consider the purpose of your message. If you want to connect with people on an emotional level, a conversational tone may help. For more serious topics, like any form of academic writing, keep it formal.
If you want to come across as competent yet friendly, you may go for a standard tone (somewhere between formal and casual). Just remember—it's always safer to be more formal than informal!
|When to use formal writing||When to use informal writing|
|Academic writing||Personal blogs|
|Business writing||Personal emails|
|Reports||Social media posts|
|Job applications||Instant messaging|
The platform you're using may also dictate your writing style. You'll notice Outwrite's blog articles and social media posts are fairly casual compared to our terms of service page.
If you're unsure, check if the company or publication you're writing for has a style guide. The best ones will outline how their brand tone sounds on different platforms.
How to write formally
Now that we know when to use formal language, let's look at how to use it.
1. Avoid colloquial language
While contractions and abbreviations can save precious typing time, they're discouraged when writing formally. Aim to write the full version of words, like "information" instead of "info".
The same rule applies to slang, idioms, rhetorical questions, and other figures of speech. These elements tend to be conversational, and may detract from the seriousness of your message. Use literal language instead.
You should also be mindful of your punctuation. Exclamation marks and em dashes may be fun to use, but they have no place in a research paper. Stick to your standard commas and semicolons.
2. Embrace complex (but clear) sentences
In previous articles, we've recommended rewriting sentences to make them simple and short. Formal writing is one of those cases where it's okay, if not commonplace, to use complex and compound sentences.
|Simple||Independent clause||Penny has a dog. Remi has a cat.|
|Compound||2+ independent clauses||Penny has a dog, and Remi has a cat.|
|Complex||Independent + dependent clause||Although he prefers dogs, Remi has a cat.|
Consider including transitional phrases like "additionally", "conversely", and "therefore" to connect and contrast ideas. Just be careful not to make your sentences too wordy—formal writing should be succinct.
3. Swap weak words for stronger synonyms
People typically dress up for a formal event. The same goes for your vocabulary. When used correctly, complex words can make you appear intelligent and professional.
If you don't have a thesaurus handy, a writing assistant like Outwrite can help you use stronger words like:
4. Write in third person
Informal writing often uses first and second person. Personal pronouns like "I", "we" and "you" can help portray the writer's opinion, and evoke an emotional response from the reader.
In contrast, formal writing prefers third person. It tends to make your writing more objective and impersonal. For example, instead of saying "I believe", try using "it could be argued" or "the evidence suggests".
Get serious about formal writing
Hopefully these tips have made formal writing a little less intimidating. If you need help putting them into practice, give Outwrite a try. It'll help enhance your vocabulary, and rewrite your sentences for improved clarity and flow.