Is your writing too formal?

Style-extremes_MBA

Is your writing fresh, lively, and immediate? Does it sound like your voice? Or is it weighed down with formality? Write like a human being listed three style mistakes people slip into: too formal, too much jargon, or too chatty. These three articles will look at the extremes of each one, to help you write bright, clear content.

In written communication, the principle requirement of the author may be assistance with the prevention of the proliferation of undue formality, which can be a significant hindrance for the reader as regards the immediacy of comprehension, predominantly owing to the utilization of formal structures, the selection of Latinate words, and the overuse of noun-based phrases… Don’t stop reading!

In writing, some people need help to avoid too much formality, which stops the reader from understanding immediately what they mean. This usually comes from using formal structures, Latin-based words, and too many noun phrases.

Spot the difference. Reading such heavily formal writing is like wading through a marsh. More than a paragraph of that and it starts to slide over the surface of your brain. Your mind’s so busy trying to make sense of the sentences that you have no headspace left for the actual content. None of us speak like that, so why do we write like that?

Usually, when someone’s writing is too formal, they’re casting their mind back to their last experience of written work. That’s usually school essays, university, or an MBA thesis. In each of those, you’re taught a very formal style – appropriate for academic work, but not for a book or a blog. Sometimes people write their blog in a fresh, clear style, but get bogged down when they start their book: they have a sense it should read like “a proper book” and they start using a strained, formal style which is alien to them and hard for their readers. Sometimes, formal language is a form of insecurity: when someone’s worried people might not take them or their content seriously, they reach for the heavyweight language. “Furthermore, the instability of…” Ha! Can’t argue with “Furthermore”, can you?! Such formal language is impersonal – which makes it unfriendly. It’s complex – which means your reader has less headspace for your actual content. It’s vague – which means you end up talking in abstracts, instead of the practical specifics your readers want.

There’s always two ways to work on your writing style: the natural usage approach, and the analytical approach. Natural usage means how humans actually use language, whether they’re speaking or writing. You change how you speak between home, the pub with friends, and a formal meeting: each context has its own way of speaking. You switch dialect when you need to and you pick up the accent of the people around you: you’re part of a speaking community. It’s the same in writing: we adjust our style to the context, and to our community. If your writing’s too formal, change your context: think of it as a blog. When my clients’ writing is too formal, I always check their blogs – and sure enough, there’s the clear natural voice we need. You can write a section of your book for your blog and post it. You can also change your book document to look more like your blog. Also look at your community. You also pick up the accent of people around you – so what are you reading? Find some blogs and business books written the way you want to write and soak your mind in them. Read them before you sleep and before you write. Between those two, context and community, you can shift your language back to a natural style. If you want to change what you’ve already written, though, you need to know what’s going wrong.

The analytic approach is like looking under the bonnet of your writing: how does it work? Where’s the formality coming from? Look for these four things: formal Latin-based words; impersonal structures; too many nouns; abstract words.

Formal versus natural words

English has a two-tier system, thanks to various invasions. First the Romans conquered us, then the French – both Latin languages. The French sat in their castles and ate mouton; the Anglo-Saxon peasants worked in the fields looking after sheep. So on a plate, it’s mutton; in a field, it’s sheep. The same applies to beef (boeuf) or cows, pork (porc) or pig. The same also applies to our formal and informal language. The Latin-based assistance is the fancy ruling-class word for help. The upper tiers of society would speak of un occupation, while on the ground it’s just a job. As a rule of thumb, our formal words come from Latin or French; our natural words from Anglo-Saxon. Try this sentence:

I request further information regarding my client’s occupation.
I ask for more details about my client’s job.

Here’s a batch of formal words: see if you can match them to their natural equivalents. Formalassistance, information, repair, due to, obtain / receive, request, enquire, occupation, requirements, further, possess, reserve, inform, provide, verify Naturalask, ask for, details, help, fix, job, because of, get, more, book, give, needs, check / prove, have, tell

Impersonal structures

It is necessary to… It was imperative to be able to… It is to be noted that… Extra resources will be needed… Difficulty may be encountered regarding… 

When you change these to more natural English, you suddenly need to say who: you, they, someone. You need to.. They had to be able to… You should note that… You will need extra resources… You may encounter difficulty with… These impersonal structures usually come from academic writing, where you’re trying to avoid saying “I” and “you”. In natural writing, in your book or your blog, you’re allowed to say both of those. If you’re saying something negative and you don’t want to say “you”, say “some”, “they”, or “we”. “We often write too formally when we’re insecure.” Look out for sentences starting “It is/was”, “There is/was”, and “be _____ed” (eg. be needed, be encountered).

Nouns versus verbs

We all know verbing weirds language.  First they came for the verbs, and I said nothing, because verbing weirds language. Then they arrival for the nouns and I speech nothing because I no verbs. We love verbs; verbs are fun. Verbs are your doing words: that’s where all the energy in your writing lives. Verbs are the engine; nouns are heavy blocks that need to be moved. If your sentence is full of nouns and only has one tiny weak little verb like “is”, it can barely putter along. Look at the horrible paragraph I wrote at the beginning. Verbs are green, noun-phrases are underlined in red. (Note for grammar pedants like me: I’m counting present participles as verbs!)

In written communication, the principle requirement of the author may be assistance with the prevention of the proliferation of undue formality, which can be a significant hindrance for the reader as regards the immediacy of comprehension, predominantly owing to the utilization of formal structures, the selection of Latinate words, and the overuse of noun-based phrases.

Now here’s the natural version I gave underneath:

In writing, some people need help to avoid too much formality, which stops the reader from understanding immediately what they mean. This usually comes from using formal structures, Latin-based words, and too many noun phrases.

You can see the difference immediately. The second version has far more verbs and the verbs have meaning: need, avoid, stop, understand… not just “be”. The worst culprit to look out for in noun-based writing is the _____ of ______the principle requirement of the author, the prevention of the proliferation of undue formality, the immediacy of comprehension, the utilization of formal structures, the selection of Latinate words, the overuse of noun-based phrases.

Abstract versus specific words

Formal language does lots of damage to your writing’s tone and your reader’s experience – but it also damages your content. It allows you to talk in abstracts and generalities, when you need to get down to specifics. Look at this sentence:

Clear communication about resources will affect the outcome.

It means something – but what? Communication could be emails, speaking, memos, meetings, an agreed document, a group presentation… Resources could be stationery, raw materials for a factory, teaching materials, money, even people. Affect the outcome – is that good or bad? Formal words are often large, abstract categories. Sometimes you do need a more general word, but most of the time it stops you saying what you actually mean. Readers also prefer specific words. We are physical creatures: we understand best when we can feel, see, and touch things.

These overly abstract words come from a random selection of business profiles: wellbeing, effectiveness, technology, engagement, identity, behaviour. They each mean something, but nothing very specific. I read those business profiles and the descriptions of each person’s expertise, and think, “Yes, but I still have no idea what you actually do.” You can’t translate those words without sitting down with the person who wrote it and quizzing them: So what do you mean by that? In real life, what does that actually look like? Which aspect of that do you mean? At the moment, they’re so broad that they sound like Humpty Dumpty’s words:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

Getting rid of formality means getting back to specifics. It freshens your tone, energises your writing, and clarifies what you’re saying. If you’d like help or coaching with writing your blog or your book, let’s start with a chat.

3 thoughts on “Is your writing too formal?

  1. Great article (as always) Megan – been going back over my writing and feel that’s its not too bad regards being in a ‘natural writing’ tone … but still need work in some areas such as the use of verbs.

    Appreciate the regular blogs on the TL website as it’s hooking me back into the task of editing and writing – many thanks.

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  3. Pingback: Does your reader feel left out? | Thought Leader Books: The Blog

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