Characteristics of Formal and Informal Writing

I’m currently supporting a new corporate client that is serious, so to speak, about maintaining an informal in-house writing style. How serious? Their in-house style manual runs longer than 200 pages. They want to make certain anyone writing for them gets it right. What does it mean for an organization to have an informal writing style, and how does that differ from formal? I thought I’d take a few minutes today to share my interpretation of these terms. Hopefully you find it useful.

Formal vs. informal

You can think of formal writing the same way you think of formal attire: you use it to look important, serious, and worthy enough to be doing whatever it is you are doing. Informal or casual writing is, again, like casual attire: more comfortable, relaxed, and even something approaching fun.

When do you wear formal clothing? While styles are constantly changing, there are some situations that maintain a certain seriousness, even in the dressed-down United States. These include: weddings, funerals, corporate board meetings, meetings with a banker (to ask for a loan), being sworn into public office, a special occasion with your family or significant other, formal dinners or dances, and attending places of worship. Formal writing, like formal clothing, invokes a certain sense of ceremony, of importance. All of those aspects of formality entail a certain attention to appearance and proper behavior. If your attire (or writing) does not “look the part” for a particular situation, you might not be taken seriously.

Casual writing, like casual clothing could be used practically anywhere else: attending a sports event, going to a party, or just attending a gathering of friends or family. Everyone knows each other, the atmosphere is lighthearted, and there isn’t an expectation for high diction or precisely ordained forms of speech.

How these behaviors are reflected in writing

The literary equivalents of formal-dress occasions include legal documents (contracts, wills, non-disclosure agreements, etc.); documents that could be used in a legally binding manner (employment offer letters, sales offers, service recovery offers); scientific or technical papers or reports; or any piece of paper that’s going to request money from or impose a financial charge on a person or an organization money.

Casual-dress (informal writing) occasions would be items like sales or marketing materials; personal correspondence; and blogs, tweets, and other forms of social media.

I should explain that there are varying levels of formal and informal. A government proposal is formal for the most part, but it could incorporate marketing or emotion-based writing to get the attention of the reader. A company like Disney can have a warm, casual style in its correspondence with its guests, but if the guest is to receive something of tangible value, say, like a free hotel night or theme park tickets, the letter will incorporate a very specific set of language that will explain how the guest can claim this item and what limitations accompany it.

Tactical examples of formal and informal writing

I decided a table was the best way to contrast the two styles.

Formal Informal
No contractions Contractions acceptable (can’t, won’t, etc.)
Full names (first, middle initial, last) and titles or honorifics (“Your Highness,” “Your Excellency,” “Sir/Madam,” etc.) expected in the address and throughout the document, where appropriate First and last names, with first name only after the first use
Full, precise technical or legal terms (launch vehicle, propulsion system, certification) Informal, colloquial terms (rocket, plumbing, approval)
Few to no emotional expressions used Emotional expressions common—indeed, they are welcome and expected!
Strict adherence to legal or other formatting conventions Format optional, up to and including computer printing vs. hand writing
Precise expectations laid out in the event the document includes compliance with legal or technical constraints or regulations (“The Chief Engineer shall attend the Flight Readiness Review at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on October 27, 2009 at the OSB II building at Kennedy Space Center”). No expectations spelled out (“Hope to see you soon!”)
Numbers, values, and dollar amounts clearly spelled out If money is mentioned, again, there are no legally binding expectations stated

Doubtless there are others, but this is a rather informal blog. The point here is to encourage you to pay attention to your audience, situation, and intended outcome, all three of which will determine whether you use formal or informal writing.

There are still formal situations out there, so be certain you and your writing “look the part!”

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in business writing, guest speaking, personal, proposal writing, social media. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Characteristics of Formal and Informal Writing

  1. Informal writing style, over 200 pages. I have to confess that I reread that sentence. 🙂

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