Writing Like A Pro: Mastering Formal Language
We mostly write about copywriting, the kind of writing where you should promote somethings and somehow develop your company. We also discuss creative writing, the one where you have to look for great ideas and put them on paper.
However, there are times when you need to write something formal and official. Articles, reports, official correspondence - you name it. For all of that, rules we usually give (like in our recent ‘Cut the crap’ article) don’t work. One of our subscribers gave us an idea to write a guide on formal writing - and here we are, with a bunch of useful tips.
What is formal writing
Formal writing is used in business writing (estimates, reports) and academic writing. Also, any kind of official letter or request is done this way.
Now, let’s draw a tiny line here. We will give you general tips which are used both in business and academic writing yet there are differences. We’ll get to them as well.
Formal writing cornerstones
- It’s not that formal writing is right and conversational tone is wrong. Just used for different occasions and purposes.
- Don’t use the tips we are about to give to web-writing. For that, we have our ‘Write Like A Pro’ ongoing post series.
- Formal style pays more attention to spelling and general writing rules. If conversational place leaves us more room for experiments (that’s why we love it), with formal writing you have to really follow the rules, learned at school.
- Stay on topic. While doing formal writing, it’s easy to lose the main idea behind all the stats, diagrams and data diagrams. Therefore, every time you are finished with an academic article or a business report section, take a pause, re-read what you have written, and check whether the main point isn’t lost
- Explore all possible aspects of the subject. When writing the business report, examine all circumstances and possibilities, do risk analysis (same goes for doing an estimation). For an academic article, explore different perspectives of authors and propose your arguments for each side.
Formal writing structure
There are three kinds of papers: empirical, essays, and reviews. We’ll look shortly into each one of them and move to the generally accepted structure.
Standard empirical article
The accepted structure for such work is:
It resembles an informational blog post: you can use subheadings, formatting, images, graphs etc.
Not every essay follows the rules of the formal writing. If we are talking about humanitarian disciplines, there you have a lot of freedom in picking expressions. However, if the topic of your essay is purely academic then the rules we’ll discuss here are always in place.
As it’s easy to guess, review’s main task is to review an existing published work. There are certain ethical principles to follow - we’ll get to them later but the structure is free. Mostly it depends on the topic: if you write a review on a book, follow a style of an essay, if it’s a biology paper, you have to present data, experiments findings etc.
Formal writing - must-know rules
Don’t write the way you speak
In copywriting, we have the privilege of using the conversational style which means using expressions we use in speech. For formal writing, you can do no such thing. That specifically relates to the use of idioms and metaphors. You can’t write about some butterflies in stomachs if there were no butterflies and no stomach in your investigation. Describe things with their own names so as not to confuse your reader.
Maybe not in web writing but in academic and formal writing it’s truly everything. When writing an official letter of a request, or doing a scientific paper, make it a habit to use these learnt-in-school words as:
- To begin with, firstly, the first point is
- Secondly, the next issue is, the following question is
- Concluding all written above
- and many others - you can look up alternatives here
Know everything you tell but don’t tell everything you know
While writing a scientific article or academic essay authors often try to show as much knowledge as possible. From school, many of us took out the principle that more words identify better knowledge of the matter. Well, that’s not how it works. Every word you say should have a meaning, ideally - be as clear as a ready quote. Academic writing already is full of words with no sense (these are the rules). Don’t make it even more senseless.
Always keep your audience in mind
If you write a letter, think about how familiar is the recipient with a topic of the text. Try to read your piece with his/her eyes. If you write for a so-called general audience, get ready to explain things a lot. If these are professionals we are talking about, explanations will be redundant.
The examples of writing for the different audience in science are numerous. If you take Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A brief history of time’ and compare it to his scientific articles, you’ll see how different styles are.
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?
In the classical theory, black holes can only absorb and not emit particles. However, it is shown that quantum mechanical effects cause black holes to create and emit particles as if they were hot bodies with temperature h κ 2 π k ≈ 10^-6\left (M_ ⊙ M\right)^ ∘ K
In both cases, he uses formal writing, just in one case, it’s oriented on the mass audience, in another - on physicists like himself.
Be polite. Always
This especially matters while writing a review. When assessing or commenting on someone’s work, bear in mind that the author of discussed work can always read your work. The best thing you can do is to be as diplomatic as possible even when it comes to criticism. No, especially when it comes to criticism.
No imperative voice
When I write about copywriting, I always advise to ‘use short, declarative sentences’, for which imperative style is just perfect. However, in the formal writing, such style will be considered rude and therefore, should be avoided. So, instead of writing ‘Look at the graph’ use ‘You may find a graph below’.
Proper text organization
We already discussed the basic structure of scientific papers. Now I will just give few general tips which work for all types of formal writing. If the structure is not defined by specific rules, look up to this advice.
Grouping logical points and data
The structure of every well-written piece is overall similar: the introduction of the thesis, the ‘body’ where you prove the stated point, and the conclusion, where you sum up all written, usually approves or contradicts the thesis, described at the beginning of the document.
Whenever possible, use sub-headings
Obviously, in essay sections, titles are not obligatory and not even always appropriate. However, there are big fundamental essays, on 50-100 pages (like ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, written by Albert Camus) where ignoring subheadings is just not an option. So, if your work is more 10+ pages, section titles are a must.
Introduction and conclusion matter the most
Your reader should be able to understand the idea of the work without looking at the main part, just at the introduction and conclusion. Hence, repeat main points and save best phrases for these sections.
What words to use and what to avoid
No endless references
You know how in some articles authors use words this and following more than any other adjective? It’s not just annoying, it is also bad for general idea comprehension. Take the list of words that should be reduced to the minimum:
- These, that, following
- It, the following point, data, graph etc
- They, those
Such words can be omitted with no loss for the main point. Whatever can be cut, cut.
One of the most
The construction one of the most important/popular/credible is not a sign of good writing. In fact, it shows one of the biggest author’s weak points (you see how it looks it a text?). You can just say ‘popular’ or ‘credible’ without additional prepositions.
English languages is full of words pronounced similarly but written differently (their - there, price - prize etc). The worst part is, mixing these words up is not detected by spell checkers (and today we rely on them a lot). So, always reread your text at least 1-2 times to check the presence of such mistakes.
Watch out for point and research
Those words, used so often in formal writing, have their peculiarities.
The word ‘point’ is used in an undividable way. You can’t say ‘a part of point’ or ‘a half of point’. Just point, as a whole.
There is no such thing as ‘a research’. Same as ‘researches’, by the way. The only form this word is used to is ‘research’ or ‘the research’.
Check British vs American spelling
None of them is right or wrong. Of course, I don’t have to explain that if you study or work in the US, use American spelling, if in UK - the British variant. The question is, which one to use if you live in neither of these countries? The truth is, it doesn’t matter. The only thing you have to worry about is consistency.
Never use contractions
We were told this in school all the time but I will repeat, just for the sake of memory refreshing or in case you forgot. Don’t use ‘don’t’ or ‘won’t’ in formal writing. Only do not or will not - full versions, no contractions.
Things to be always remembered - the quick checklist
- Never substitute the word ‘author’ with a word ‘writer.
- Use the last name instead of first, like in marketing texts. Instead of calling Richard Feynman Richard, call him Feynman. You are not friends (damn, it’s sad).
- Make sure your formatting corresponds with official journal or conference requirements - some of the committees are very strict.
- Professors often have own quirks. Ask yours whether they have any specific requirements for papers or any other written work.
- Don’t be shy to ask for examples. If you have to write a paper, go to your professor and ask him/her to show you a well-written sample so you have a better idea what to write about.
- When quoting other texts, always put the sources and indicate the reference. Otherwise, it’s duplication.
- Footnotes - not the best practice. They are not comfortable to read and are badly understood by recipients.
- Ask your professor about using personal nouns in this particular texts. Authorities’ opinions on the utilization of words ‘I’ or ‘we’differ - make sure you know standards accepted by a particular professor or committee.
- Direct quotes are good only when they are appropriate. Don’t make a quote compilation - it gives an impression that you have no personal opinion on the issue. Do direct quotes only when they have great meaning for your point and field of study.
Always refer to good examples of known writers of the field. For that, look up the articles in Google Scholar - it’s a great free source for finding academic texts.
Now go and write something groundbreaking!