By Joan Whetzel
When assigned an essay to write in high school or college, one of the decisions is whether to write it using a formal or informal voice. The choice depends mainly on the topic and the teacher’s preference. Howevever, there are instances when a bending of the rules is called for. On occasion, one may choose an informal voice when a formal voice is usually called for, and vice versa. When deciding on whether to use formal or informal voice when writing an essay, it helps to understand what they are and how to use them effectively.
Informal voice in writing is like the colloquial English used in every day speech. It makes use of a more conversational tone when discussing the topic. Generally speaking, informal voice is used for writing personal emails, some business correspondance and all personal correspondence, general interest nonfiction writing, and magazines for the mass market. It tends to bring the writer and reader closer together, like they’re having a conversation. Contractions and the use of ellipses (and side comments inside of parentheses) is common. Of course, good grammar and spelling still applies and the abbreviated forms of English used in most emails, instant messaging, and text messages are not permitted in essay assignments.
Formal voice in writing uses more precise language that appears objective and impersonal. Formal voice in writing is generally used for scholarly and academic reports, essays, article and books, as well as in technical writing, legal documents, research papers, lectures, and ceremonial addresses. The formal style uses advance vocabulary and industry specific jargon, sentences that are longer and more complex, the use of the world “one” rather than “you,” and never uses contractions. The tone of the writing is more serious as opposed to the more personal and conversational tone of the informal voice.
Comparing Formal and Informal Voice
Sometimes it helps to see a few examples. Usually the difference shows up in sentence structure.
Sometimes the difference is a matter of word choice.
When to Use Informal or Formal Voice
For most essays, students will probably want to use the formal voice. The formal voice shows that the writer understands the topic and is preferred for science, math, medical and technical subject areas.
However, there are times when the informal voice may be more appropriate or may be a better choice. In history, some social sciences, communications and the like, the rules for informal voice are much less hard and fast. The informal voice can give a personal touch or provide a personal connection that may be called for with some topics. In fact, the more conversational tone may allow the writer to draw connections and use metaphors more easily than the formal voice.
For articles that will be published for general audiences in print or online, the informal voice can be more persuasive and give the writing a more friendly appeal. On the other hand, article that will be published in academic or scientific journals require the formal voice as the the audience is looking for a more professional tone.
Once you know your audience (even if it’s a teacher) and the nature of the assignment, you can more accurately determine the writing voice you need to use. Is the teacher’s general lecture style more informal or formal? Is the place you intend to publish your article the informal, mass market type or the formal, professional variety? Do you need to dig deep to find an emotional appeal? Or do you need to stand out with a logical appeal?
English Practice. Formal and Informal Speech and Writing.
Nambiar, Manjusha. Article Biz. Formal and Informal Speech and Writing: Differences.
Nordquist, Richard. About.com. Informal Style.
Nordquist, Richard. About.com. Form Style.