Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

The Importance of Formal Writing


Because of the dramatic changes in writing that have resulted since the advent of the Internet and mobile devices, the lines between formal writing and casual writing have blurred. For example, when writing an email to a friend or posting to a social networking site, it is acceptable to use informal writing. However, in other cases, such as when writing a business report, an email to a boss, or a thesis, the writing style must be more formal. Thus, it is important to identify your audience and the appropriate style of writing to use by keeping in mind what you are writing and to whom. This article will discuss some guidelines for formal writing.

Emoticons should never be used

First of all, it is never acceptable to use emoticons, including smiley faces, sad faces, winks, etc. Never. I suggest finding another way to tell your boss you are very happy about your raise or you may be finding another job!

Use proper spelling

Use correct spelling all of the time. This includes avoiding short forms and only using words that are found in the dictionary. When in doubt, look it up. This means that you must write "tonight" instead of "2nite" and "because" instead of "bc." The shortened versions are just too informal. In addition, informal spelling is often difficult to decipher.

Use proper punctuation

Unless you want to sound like an overly excited teenager writing a text message, you should limit yourself to one exclamation point, regardless of how excited you might be when writing a sentence. The same applies to question marks and to the ellipsis (which should have only three dots). In addition, you should also void the ampersand (&); write out the word "and."

Use full words

Contractions are appropriate only for conversational use and for informal writing, never for technical or formal writing. Note that the full form of "can't" is one word: "cannot" not "can not." You should also avoid using abbreviated words such as "TV" and "photo" and use the full versions such as "television" and "photograph".

Avoid using colloquial words/expressions

Informal writing might utilize nouns like:

  • "contraption"
  • "fire"
  • "kid"
  • "how come"
  • "quote"

A formal writer would prefer:

  • "device"
  • "dismiss"
  • "child"
  • "why"
  • "quotation"

Informal writing may sound more like conversation while formal writing should be more polished.

Avoid using first and second person pronouns

Formal writing often tries to be objective, and the pronouns "I" and "you" tend to imply subjectivity. Instead, use words such as "one," "one's," "the reader," the "author's," etc. For example:

Informal: "You should sleep eight hours each night."
Formal: "One should sleep eight hours each night."

Avoid the use of clichés

In order to ensure that your writing is professional, you need to use a basic language that all English speakers will understand. Therefore, do not use clichés or idioms that people may not understand. There are certainly much better ways of expressing your thoughts. Clichés are perhaps the most common hallmark of informal writing. Rather than saying someone "had a cow," just simply say they were very upset. The reader will still get the picture. Here are some more examples of clichés to avoid:

  • "Good things come to those who wait."
  • "Never a dull moment."
  • "Writing on the wall."
  • "Calm before the storm."

Do not write as you would speak

So, like, you know, I totally don't even do that OMG! To ensure you are maintaining a formal tone, you need to leave out words and phrases that are not essential to conveying your point. For example, avoid using "well," "like," "for sure," "you know," and similar phrases.

Do not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction

In formal writing, do not use coordinating conjunctions such as "and," "but," "so," or "or" to start a sentence. Coordinating conjunctions are meant to join words, phrases, and clauses and, therefore, it is awkward to begin a sentence with one. Consider attaching the sentence that starts with a coordinating conjunction to the previous sentence, substituting the period for a comma to produce a compound sentence. You can also use transitional adverbs such as:

  • "additionally" or "moreover"
  • "nevertheless" or "however"
  • "therefore" or "thus"
  • "alternatively" or "instead" or "otherwise"

Avoid using the word "get"

Try to avoid all forms of this verb and replace it with a more formal, descriptive verb. For example:

Informal: "I got an A in the course."
Formal: "I received an A in the course."

Informal: "She didn't get the joke."
Formal: "She did not understand the joke."

Informal: "The machine never gets used."
Formal: "The machine is never used."

Familiarize yourself with formal writing

One of the best ways to become familiar with formal writing is to read it. Newspapers, magazines, business reports, and journal articles are great sources of formal writing. They can also help you expand your vocabulary.


If your e-mail to a friend has a small typographical error, it is likely not a big deal. However, a typographical error in an e-mail to your boss appears very unprofessional. Therefore, proofreading is an integral part of formal writing. This often involves revisiting a document after some time has passed since you wrote it or printing out the document and reviewing it line by line. Alternatively, you can ask a peer to review it.

Finally, the above-referenced examples illustrate just some of the differences between formal and informal writing. The main thing to remember is that both are correct, it is just a matter of tone and setting. As you can see in this article, I have attempted to walk the fine line between both formal and informal.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.