If you are writing an essay or even writing a letter, then it’s imperative that you have a good grasp on the rules surrounding formal writing. This can make the difference between passing and failing an assessment. Using our top formal writing strategies, you can ace your exam. So, read on for essential advice!
Formal Writing Tips: 7 Top Strategies
Tip Number 1: Keep it Formal
The first of our formal writing tips is this: when writing under formal conditions, keep your language formal! One of the biggest challenges that many people face when it comes to writing under formal conditions, is that they lapse into informal writing. Even if you work in an office environment, you won’t be using formal language all day, so it’s very natural and normal for some of your normal language to slip into your writing.
Here are some common mistakes that people make when writing in a formal manner:
Using slang. Slang is a very loose term for words that are ‘colloquial’ or associated/restricted to a certain group of people. For example, if you live in certain parts of England, a common greeting is to refer to others as ‘duck’. This is basically a term of endearment. However, if you used this term in other parts of the country, then people would think you are actually referring to them as the animal! Hence, you can see why ‘slang’ isn’t universal, and therefore isn’t appropriate for formal writing.
Avoid using contractions. You might understand the word ‘contract’ to mean ‘make smaller’ or ‘squeeze’. In this case, the same applies for words. Contractions are basically words or phrases which have been squeezed together, to make them sound informal. For example, if we were to contract the phrase ‘I would not’ then it becomes ‘I wouldn’t’. While it might be useful to ‘save space’ in informal writing or normal speech, when writing formally or academically your aim should be to state things as clearly and accurately as possible – therefore it’s not appropriate to take grammatical shortcuts.
Plain and simple. A common misconception amongst newer writers is that you need to use as many words as possible to sound as intelligent as possible. Whilst sometimes in informal writing (although rarely) it helps to use more words, the crux of formal/academic writing is that you need to say things as clearly and definitively as possible – with as little room for misconception or error as possible. This means that your sentences need to be direct, short (ideally), and to the point.
Look at the following sentence:
‘Amongst all the items that were discussed at the meeting by far the most superior was object A.’
Think about how you can shorten this sentence. How can you deliver the message of this sentence, in fewer words:
‘As agreed at the meeting, Object A was the best item.’
Tip Number 2: Read Your Words Out Loud
Many people don’t think about doing this, but a great way to assess whether there are problems with either your sentence structure or your punctuation is to actually read the words out loud to yourself. This is one of the best formal writing tips. Try it yourself, read the following sentence out loud off the page:
‘The man went to the shops and whilst there he bought two apples a banana and a ham sandwich then he went to see his mother at the cinema’
Okay, you can breathe now! Obviously this is a very basic example but it really demonstrates how reading sentences out loud can change the way you apply punctuation. When you read the above sentence, you should have instinctively paused before:
- ‘and whilst’
- ‘a banana’
- ‘then he went’
So, by looking at these pauses, we can see the sentence becomes:
- ‘The man went to the shops. Whilst there he bought two apples, a banana, and a ham sandwich. Then he went to see his mother at the cinema.’
Tip Number 3: Analytical Phrasing
Analytical language is a great way of demonstrating prowess in language. Take a look at the below example:
The iPod Nano effectively merges two approaches to music storage and this makes it significantly different from its competitors. It’s tiny hard drive, which offers huge capacity, is combined with a memory chip which allows for a more compact design. The iPod Nano’s memory chips are incredibly small yet their four gigabyte capacity matches that of some hard drive players — the equivalent of 1000 songs. The absence of moving parts means that the iPod Nano is less delicate than full sized iPods and unlikely to skip.
As you will see, there are a number of parts in the above paragraph in bold text. The reason these parts are bolded is because they a) contain words and phrases that help the text transition from one part to the text to the next, b) use analytical language to make a point. Phrases like ‘is combined’ and ‘means that’ effectively link the main subject of the sentence together with the rest of the line, which in turn means that the sentence reads clearly, giving the reader a good understanding of what the speaker is talking about. Furthermore, you can see that the writer in this instance has used analytical terms in a clear and cohesive manner, clearly providing the reader with details, without overcomplicating the main point.
Other such examples of analytical words/phrases are:
- Is made up of
- Is similar to
- On the other hand
Tip Number 4: Comparative Language
This is more relevant if you are writing an academic essay, but correct use of academic language will go a long way to improving your scores. Correct use of academic language means examining two different things, and then exploring the ways they are different. There are lots of different terms that you can use to do this, and they include:
- There are several ways in which A and B are similar, including ……….
- The main difference between A and B is ……….
- The most striking similarity between A and B is ……….
- Obvious differences exist between A and B, particularly the fact that ………
The main thing you need to remember when using comparative language is to clearly explain to the reader that a) there is a difference between the two (or more) objects/items that you are comparing, and b) that you are actually comparing them. Using sentence starters such as the ones above gives the reader a clear indication of what it is that you are doing.
To understand this a bit better, think about what actually goes through the reader’s head when they read your statement. Put yourself in their position. If you were reading one of the above statements, then you would instinctively be saying in the back of your mind ‘Okay, so now we are going to compare this object and object.’ That’s important, because it means that the writer’s intention for the reader, and what the reader is actually doing, coincide. When these two things don’t coincide, it usually means that the writing has been constructed in a way that didn’t lend to easy interpretation, or that the idea the writer is presenting hasn’t been laid out clearly enough for the reader to understand.
Tip Number 5: Avoid The Comma Splice
A comma splice occurs when a writer employs a comma to link two independent clauses – clauses that could make sense on their own as sentences. As shown above, a comma can be used to separate such clauses within one sentence, but with the use of other connective words like ‘and’ or ‘but’. So, when a comma is used to separate two independent clauses (clauses that could make sense on their own as sentences), an error occurs.
For example (these are INCORRECT sample sentences):
- A lioness’s top speed is around 50mph, they can run fast in short bursts.
- I enjoy playing the piano, I use it to relax.
- The Battle of Maidstone took place in June 1648, it ended in victory for the parliamentarians.
The problem with these sentences is that a comma is not sufficient to link them. The two clauses either need to be in their own sentences, or connectives/a different punctuation mark needs to be used. See below for correct versions of the three wrong examples given above.
The highlighted areas show what has been changed to make the sentences correct.
- A lioness’s top speed is around 50mph; they can run fast in short bursts.
- I enjoy playing the piano. I use it to relax.
- The Battle of Maidstone took place in June 1648, and it ended in victory for the parliamentarians.
Similarly, commas are also used to separate introductory parts of a sentence from its main clause.
- After arriving home from the festival, Nathan fired up his computer.
- Despite initial disagreement, the deal was struck relatively quickly.
- Fortunately, there was not too much damage.
A further use of the comma is to separate ‘extra’ details of a sentence from its main clause. In these cases, two commas would be used to contain the ‘extra’ information from the main content of the sentence. A good way to check if you are using this type of comma correctly is to take out the ‘extra’ information and see if the main clause makes sense by itself. If it does, you’re looking good.
Tip Number 6: Learn How To Use The Semi Colon
The semicolon is probably the most complained-about punctuation mark. Be it confused novices struggling to get to grips with it, or smug veterans maligning its misuse, you’ll have heard people arguing about the semicolon. In truth, it’s not that interesting, or even that difficult to use. Its main use is to separate two independent clauses that are closely related. This means that the two halves of the sentence must be able to make sense by themselves. In other words, your sentence containing the semicolon could feasibly be split into two perfect sentences.
However, the choice not to split them in this way, and instead employ a semicolon, would be a choice to emphasise a link of some sort between the two clauses.
- Graham was easily frightened; the slightest noise could startle him.
- Audrey had a very specific taste in film; she would watch old comedies but nothing else.
- I’m karate mad; I train every day for at least 3 hours.
Think back to the section about the comma splice – the semicolon could stand in for an erroneous comma in these situations. Also, make sure that you are not using a semicolon where a colon would be more appropriate. In many situations, if what follows your semicolon could not make sense as its own sentence, a colon would
be more appropriate.
However, in cases like this, it may be preferable to rewrite your sentence into two sentences, or use a comma and a connective!
Another use of the semicolon is to separate items in a list which are long or convoluted in some way. This is done to provide clarity and understanding where simply using commas would not have been sufficient.
- Belligerents of the War of the Roses included: Henry VI, House of Lancaster; Henry VII, House of Tudor; Margaret of Anjou, House of Valois-Anjou; and Edward IV, House of York.
As you can see, using semicolons to separate the listed items here allows the use of the comma within the listed items themselves, and makes it clear the Houses belong with the respective rulers.
Tip Number 7: Paragraph Correctly
In academic writing or essay writing, it is extremely important to write good paragraphs. A good paragraph is one that is contained, and one that does not contain lots of complex points.
As a rule, you should try and keep paragraphs limited to one main point. This way, you can stop paragraphs from growing out of control, allowing the reader to understand your argument more easily. A great way to make your paragraphs easier to follow is to treat each of them as a miniature essay. By this, we mean that each paragraph should have a short sentence which introduces the main point, followed by the point itself. Finally, you should end the paragraph with a short sentence which briefly summarises your point, and demonstrates how it relates to the question that you’re answering. This way, you’ll have your argument for each paragraph clearly laid out for the reader to see.
If it helps, you can try coming up with a subtitle for each paragraph in your essay. Don’t include this in the finished copy, but writing each paragraph with the main point of it explicitly in mind will help you focus your efforts, and create a more consistent piece of work.
Once you have a paragraph structure laid out, the flow of your essay will become a lot more pronounced. This means that you’ll be able to spot parts that feel disjointed and correct their course. By ‘disjointed’, we mean parts of the essay which either stick out from the flow of your essay and don’t lead to any new points, or sections which actively move against the flow of your essay.
Imagine your essay is a river. Each part of the essay should flow into the next, as your argument cumulatively builds up towards the conclusion. The points made in earlier paragraphs should always contribute to later ones, and those which don’t could be considered as irrelevant. For example, if paragraphs A, B, C, and D all support a larger argument made in paragraph F, but the argument in paragraph E has no bearing on this argument, then you need to consider whether it’s paying off for you.
If the paragraph isn’t benefitting your argument, then you should probably get rid of it and use the space to write something relevant. There’s no set length that a paragraph needs to be, but they can be too long. If you have a single paragraph that’s significantly larger than the rest in your essay, it might be worth revisiting to see how it can be divided into smaller parts. This will prevent your essay from becoming ‘bogged down’. Likewise, lots of tiny paragraphs can look too fragmented or poorly developed.