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Using a Formal Writing Style

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by | No Comments »

A lot of assignments we receive in our classes ask for a formal, or academic writing style. What does that mean? Writing Center consultant Haili Vinson helps explain what a formal writing style means and how to do it in your own work.

Making Your Writing More Formal

Some college writing assignments allow for a personal, informal tone. Most, however, require elevated language that demonstrates a student’s ability to join an academic conversation. While your ideas are always the most important part of any essay, here are some tips on how to transform your writing from the personal to professional level.

1. Vocabulary

We use words like “good,” “bad,” “great,” and “big” all the time in everyday conversation. Our friends and family know what we mean when we use these general descriptive terms. In contrast, when they show up in your writing, these vague words may not always reflect your exact meaning. Try using a thesaurus, like the one offered on Dictionary.com, to find more specific words. For instance, “effective,” “beneficial,” “fortunate,” or “advantageous” are all possible alternatives to “good,” while “significant,” “influential,” “immense,” or even “large” provide more concrete substitutions for the word “big.” Make sure to choose a word that most closely delivers your intended meaning.

Likewise, more effective alternatives exist for overused verbs like “says” and “talks about” (as in: The author says…). Try “suggests,” “asserts,” “offers,” “explains,” or a wide variety of other active and vivid verbs—there are plenty, so use as many different terms as you can!

2. Slang Language and Clichés

Again, we use slang terms every day in conversation. Like the vague words listed in the previous section, these cannot always match your intended meaning, and better alternatives are usually available. Here is a list of words and their more formal and precise substitutions.

  • KIDS (use “children”)
  • TEENS (spell out “teenagers”)
  • MOMS/DADS (“mothers,” “fathers”)
  • THINGS (“items,” “elements,” “aspects”)
  • NOWADAYS (“today”)
  • A LOT (“much” or “many”)
  • GUYS (“individuals” or “people”)

Next, try to avoid clichés and other overused phrases. Examples of clichés include: “time will tell,” “the blind leading the blind,” “hit the nail on the head,” “cold as ice,” etc. Using more unique and specific language helps make your writing more formal.

3. Second Person

Second person refers to the use of “you” or “your” to address the reader and is considered by most to be too conversational for college writing. For example, in a paper on the dangers of texting while driving, a student writes, “If you have to answer a text message, do so only at a red light.” This sentence addresses the reader (the instructor) in such a way that implies that the instructor has a problem with texting while driving, when in fact he or she may not. Changing the point of view from second to third person helps make this sentence more formal: “If drivers have to answer a text message, they should do so only at a red light.”

Many instructors approve of first person (“I,” “we,” and “our”) but keep in mind that you should assert yourself sparingly in your essays, such as in your thesis statement. Third person is always best for achieving a formal tone.

4. Contractions

We use contractions in speech all the time, but try to avoid them in formal essays. Your instructor might be okay with a few here and there, but spelling out “won’t,” “aren’t,” “don’t,” “can’t,” etc. can help lift your language out of the conversational level.


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