Formal vs. Informal Writing

Writing can be formal or informal in its tone. Your purpose for writing and your intended audience will determine which tone is appropriate.

What is the difference between formal and informal? Formal writing should be clear, unambiguous, and well organized. Formal writing uses proper sentence construction, grammar, punctuation, no contractions, no clichés, and no slang or dialect specific phrasing. The flow is logical and well defined. Sentence structure may be quite involved and the words may be technical. No familiarity with the reader is assumed. It is respectful and neutral. No inflammatory, profane, pejorative, insulting, or other offensive language is used. Jokes and humor are carefully inserted and are used very rarely in business writing and never in academic writing. Humor can be a highly personal perception. As a general rule, avoid attempts at humor. When you write for business purposes or scholarly reasons, you must be sensitive to your audience and consider the appropriateness of the language you are using.

Avoid using pronouns and ambiguous references. Instead, take the time to specifically state what or who you are referring to. In academic work it is important to clearly state your thesis so the reader knows from the outset what your objective is. Place the thesis statement at the end of the introductory paragraph or section.

Organize chapters, sections, subsections, and paragraphs such that they obviously support your central contention. Follow the concept of introduce, expand/justify, conclude.

Stay on topic and present all relevant sides of an issue fairly.

Informal writing can be thought of as a friendly voice. It is much like when you are speaking to your friends. Sentence structure may be short and to the point. Or it might ramble along as you explore different aspects of a particular thought. Contractions abound. Slang and clichés litter the work. Colorful, emotive terms can be used.

Using formal writing. Formal writing should be used in the following situations:

  • Business correspondence and communications, including business e-mails.
  • Letters to persons in authority unless you know them personally and are writing to them as a friend.
  • Reports.
  • Research papers.
  • Technical books, manuals, or articles
  • Articles for professional journals.
  • Articles for the internet and magazines with a few exceptions.
  • Most books (although the dialogue in novels may be informal to define a character).

Using informal writing. With few exceptions, informal writing should only be used in personal communications. The exceptions include:

  • Articles if the publication's branding is informal and strives for the common touch.
  • Dialogue in books to express and build a particular characterization.

Applying these guidelines will allow you to write with confidence to the audience you want to reach.

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