With written communication now possible in so many types and variations, the skill of formal writing is often a little forgotten, and its importance often unstated.
Formal writing is used in academic, scientific and most office settings whenever you want to convey your ideas to a wide audience that may have many possible backgrounds. Unlike casual conversation or emails to friends, formal writing needs to be clear, literal, and well structured.
So, here are a few Formal Writing Guidelines I’d like you to remember:
Formal writing should not sound like dictated conversation.
The best formal writing may be difficult to write but should be very easy to read. In general, with formal writing, you should not write as you would speak. In conversation, the listener can ask for clarification easily, and so on. Formal writing must stand on its own.
Stay on topic.
Everything in your document should be related clearly to your main idea. When in doubt: introduce, justify, conclude, but always remain on topic. First make the topic clear, then expand upon it, and finally sum up, tying everything back to the topic.
Transitions are very important.
In practice, making smooth transitions is very difficult. One rule of thumb is that whenever you switch topics, you should try to provide a verbal clue that you are doing so, using transitions like “However, …”, “As a result, …”, “For comparison, “, etc. These transitions are also called “segues” (seg-ways)—one of my favorite words. (The singular form is “segue”, and is also used as a verb: to segue is to change topics.)
Write what you mean.
The words you write should literally mean exactly what they say. Informally we speak of “going the extra mile”, “at the end of the day”, or things being “crystal clear”, etc. If there were no miles involved, do not write about extra ones. This practice will ensure that what you mean is obvious (even to those who have not learned the currently popular idioms).
When two paragraphs will do, there is no need to use ten. Often your point will get much stronger when you do avoid being redundant. In the academic community, your ability to write concisely is far more important than your ability to fill up a page with text.
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