The Writing Center

Informal to Formal

Most students know that two things bring down a paper grade almost immediately:  no focus and incorrect grammar.  A third aspect that is often never mentioned is the level of formality.  If you regularly read magazines (like Oprah) or the sports pages for entertainment—and nothing else more formal—you are likely to risk informality in your writing.   Oprah and every sports player would want students to succeed.  Oprah and sports magazine writers can be informal to reach their audience.  You, however, have to be more formal to reach yours.

Aspects of Magazine or Informal Writing

The following list shows you how magazine or newspaper writers connect almost instantly with their readers:

  • beginning a sentence with a conjunction (e.g. But, And, Or, So, Yet, Because)
  • contractions (e.g. can’t, won’t, doesn’t)
  • use of the word you
  • use of the imperative or command form (e.g. Watch this film.)
  • abbreviations (e.g. etc. instead of and so forth)
  • person shift (e.g. using I, you, he, she, it, and they all over the paper)
  • flashy or overly positive content instead of substantive content or argument
  • short sentences and short paragraphs
  • stories in the text that are too personal or too compelling
  • an absence of references to sources considered (e.g. in-text citations to books and journal articles)

The Very Good Reasons Magazines Are Written Using These Features

Each of the above features serves one important purpose:  to get the reader standing in line at a grocery store to plunk down the $5 for a magazine or the 50 cents for USA Today.  This writing style is used because it really works.

Even if informal writing comes easily to you, here are some reasons you want to avoid it: 

  • professors expect formal writing and grade you down for informality
  • they are preparing you for the work world where formality is expected
  • informality can make you neglect the more serious content of your work
  • informality can make you appear less serious as a writer and student

Reading More and Different Magazines and Newspapers

Keep reading what you enjoy, but add more formal sources to that list.  If you would like to get better at argument, try reading the very short editorials in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor.  Both these papers win awards for writing.  The British magazine The Economist is well written and contains very short articles on a huge array of global topics.  In it you will find arguments that you can study.  Ask your professor for well-written magazines in your field so that you can enhance your writing style.

Shifting to a More Formal Style

Here is a list of text features found in more formal texts:

  • begin sentences in a variety of ways, not always with the subject.  Try using a clause or phrase.
  • do not use contractions or abbreviations because they make you look like you are trying to save time
  • there should absolutely be no use of the word you.  Keep it to third person (he, she it,  they).
  • there should be no use of imperatives.  Sentences have to be statements or questions.
  • vary the length of sentences and paragraphs.  The more diversity in sentence length, the more pleasant the text is to read.
  • be serious when you write to your professor—do not use examples or stories that create interest without creating an argument or a serious point
  • enjoy using college-level diction, which you can learn through reading excellent newspapers and magazines like the ones mentioned above.  Another resource to develop your vocabulary is higher-priced magazines about a hobby of yours.  Find one at a good bookstore and as you are enjoying the content, study the vocabulary.  Write in a journal using the first word that comes into your mind—you will, after two years, have improved your vocabulary privately.
  • when you refer to a source you’ve consulted, make sure you give the full name of the author, the title (underlined if a book or in quotation marks if an article), the year of publication in parentheses or in the sentence itself, and a general description of the audience for that work.

Setting Up a Writing Center Appointment

If you would like a tutor to help your writing be more formal, call extension 6981. 

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