Would you say the following to your best friend? “I’m so sick of my job. I should just quit already.”
You might. But would you say that to your boss, even if it’s true?
Your audience always matters.
Why Formality in Writing Matters
If you want readers to consider and act on your message, you first have to understand your readers and your relationship with them. Are your readers your equals? Are they your superiors? How well do you know them? Keep these questions in mind as you gauge how formal your writing style should be.
Formality in writing refers to how well you follow standard English conventions, how often you use slang or idioms, how objective you are about your topic, and how familiar or intimate you assume you are with readers. Generally, writing falls into the following four levels of formality.
1. The Familiar
When you speak with or write to friends and family, you’re talking with people you know very well. You have shared experiences and inside jokes—for example, when you make a quick reference to your favorite restaurant, you can trust that they already know which restaurant you mean.
When writers use a familiar tone, they make assumptions about their audience because they know the audience well on a personal level, so writers feel free to share personal information. Writers don’t worry about following standard English conventions because their audience will understand what they mean and won’t judge them. Slang, idioms, sentence fragments, emojis, and texting abbreviations are probably acceptable.
2. The Casual
When you speak with or write to people who aren’t as close to you, but are still your equals, you likely use a casual tone. You may have some shared experiences with these people, but not enough to feel like you really know them. This audience category can include acquaintances and coworkers.
When writers strike a casual tone, they don’t share as much personal information or assume as much about their audience. While slang and idioms are probably still acceptable, inside jokes aren’t. Writers may not follow the rules vigorously (you’ll still see sentence fragments, for instance), but they often make an effort to follow them.
3. The Semi-Formal
When you’re talking to someone you don’t know or someone who is your superior, you’re more likely to use a semi-formal tone. Your audience can include your boss, your grandparents (depending on your relationship with them), or your coworkers that you’re not very familiar with. This tone is generally considered acceptable for informational blogs.
When writers use a semi-formal tone, they don’t really know the members of their audience. They may know things about them; for example, a plumber writing a blog may know that his audience is primarily homeowners. However, the writer probably does not know the individual members of the audience or their life experiences.
Writers can still use contractions and common idioms, but slang generally isn’t a good idea. When writers use a semi-formal tone, they follow the rules of standard English.
4. The Formal
If you wrote papers in school, you’re probably familiar with a formal tone. Generally, academic, technical, and business writing use this tone.
Writers using a formal tone don’t share much at all of a personal nature, and they don’t make assumptions about or refer to their audience members’ private lives. Formal writing is precise and impersonal. Writers follow the rules of standard English with exactness: they don’t use idioms, contractions, or sentence fragments.
Depending on the company and the topic, some blogs may need a formal tone. For example, a highly technical article addressed to members of the scientific community may need a formal tone in order to gain respect. However, most blogs addressed to the general public feel stuffy when they use this tone.
Pick your level of formality in writing carefully. If you sound too formal, readers may brush you off as pretentious. However, if you’re too casual, readers may not take you seriously or feel annoyed by your assumptions about them. Though semi-formal is a good stand-by for blogs, consider your relationship with your audience every time you write an article.