Formal Writing Voice

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Formal Writing Voice

For all of the essays you write for this course, you should use a formal writing voice. You should use the kind of language you would use when giving an important speech, not the kind of language you might use when talking with close friends.

A formal tone helps establish the writer's respect for the audience and suggests that the writer is serious about his or her topic. It is the kind of tone that educated people use when communicating with other educated people. Most academic writing uses a formal tone.

The following guidelines should help you maintain a formal writing voice in your essays.

1. Do not use first-person pronouns ("I," "me," "my," "we," "us," etc.).

I think that this character is confused.
This character is confused.
(The second sentence is less wordy, sounds more formal, and conveys a more confident tone.)

"One," "the reader," "readers," "the viewer," or something similar sometimes can be used effectively in place of first-person pronouns in formal papers, but be careful not to overuse these expressions. You want to sound formal, not awkward and stiff.

I can sense the character's confusion.
Readers can sense the character's confusion.

2. Avoid addressing readers as "you."

Addressing readers using second-person pronouns ("you, your") can make an essay sound informal and can bring assumptions into an essay that are not true.. As with first-person pronouns, second-person pronouns can be replaced by words such as "one," "the reader," "readers," and "the viewer."

3. Avoid the use of contractions.

Contractions are shortened versions of words that use apostrophes in place of letters, such as "can't," "isn't," "she's," and "wouldn't." The more formal, non-contracted versions are "cannot," "is not," "she is," and "would not." You might be surprised by how much better a sentence can sound if non-contracted versions of the words replace the contractions.

The character isn't aware that he's surrounded by people he can't trust.
The character is not aware that he is surrounded by people he cannot trust.

Making your writing more formal by avoiding contractions is easy: just find the contractions and replace them with the non-contracted versions of the words.

4. Avoid colloquialism and slang expressions.

Colloquial diction is informal language used in everyday speech and includes such words as "guys," "yeah," "stuff," "kind of," "okay," and "big deal." Highly informal diction, such as "freak out" and "dissing," falls into the category of "slang." While slang words often are vivid and expressive, slang comes and goes quickly, another reason why slang should be avoided in formal writing. Both colloquialism and slang expressions convey an informal tone and should be avoided in formal writing.

The guy was nailed for ripping off a liquor store.
The man was convicted of robbing a liquor store.

As you avoid informal language, be careful not to use words that suggests ideas that you may not intend. "The gentleman was convicted of robbing a liquor store" would probably leave readers wondering why the man who robbed the store is considered to be a "gentleman." Likewise, "the lady was convicted of robbing a liquor store" would probably cause readers to wonder why a woman who robs a liquor store is considered to be a "lady."

5. Avoid nonstandard diction.

Nonstandard diction refers to expressions that are not considered legitimate words according to the rules of Standard English usage. Nonstandard diction includes "ain't," "theirselves," "hisself," "anyways," "alot" (the accepted version is "a lot"), and "alright" (the accepted version is "all right"). Most good dictionaries will identify such expressions with the word "Nonstandard." Because nonstandard expressions generally are not regarded as legitimate words, I mark these expressions in essays as examples of "inaccurate word choice."

6. Avoid abbreviated versions of words.

For example, instead of writing "photo," "phone" and "TV," write "photograph," "telephone," and "television."

7. Avoid the overuse of short and simple sentences.

While the writer might use formal diction in such sentences, too many short and simple sentences can make an essay sound informal, as if the writer is not recognizing that the audience is capable of reading and understanding more complex and longer sentences. Short and simple sentences can be used effectively in formal writing, but heavy reliance on such sentences reflects poorly on the writer and gives the writing an informal tone.

8. Write in literary present tense

The literary present refers to the custom of using present tense verbs when writing about events that take place in a work of fiction.

It is correct, for example, to say, “Gatsby discovers that the American dream is not so easily attained.” Notice the simple predicate is “discovers” not “discovered.” Although a sentence like this sounds natural to most of us, students who are just beginning to write literary analysis tend to find the past tense more comfortable. It takes some instruction and lots of practice to develop the habit of using the literary present.

Remember; this is only the rule for works of fiction. When writing about history and historical works, use the past tense. But fictional stories live on in perpetuity. They transcend time — even if the story is set clearly in some moment of history. Ahab and Hamlet die at the end of their stories, but they live on.

Using the literary present isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes you have to jump around in time when talking about a story in order to make sense:

When he arrives, Harry realizes that he had left the document in his apartment and will have to return for it.

The sentence is essentially in the present tense (arrives, realizes), but the past perfect (had left) and future perfect (will have) are needed to make the sentence clear. It would be confusing to write:

When he arrives, Harry realizes that he leaves the document in his apartment and returns for it.

It’s also important to differentiate between historical information about the book and the events in the book. Use past tense for the former:

Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1927, in which the title character struggles to understand her place in society.

In general, when writing about fiction, try to remember that the events of the book occur in the present, not the past. Talk about them that way.

9. Final Comments

Do not confuse formal diction with presumptuous diction (the kind of language that seems intended mainly to impress readers) or jargon (the kind of language only familiar to people within a specialized field, such as computer technicians).

You should not sound "artificial" as you use formal diction. Instead, consider that different situations require different uses of language and that educated people are able to adapt their use of language to a variety of writing and speaking situations. Educated people have several different writing and speaking voices, and one voice is no more "genuine" than another. Instead, the different voices reflect choices based on the writing or speaking situation. Through your word choice in essays, you can portray yourself as an intelligent person who is aware of your audience--a group of well-educated people whom you do not know. Imagine the kind of language that you might use in a job interview for an important job. With formal diction, you can express yourself clearly, accurately, and effectively, without relying on the kind of language that you might use in less formal situations.


Never, Never List

  • Never begin a sentence with a pronoun.

  • Never begin a paragraph with a pronoun.

  • Never start a sentence with the word "me," which is, of course, also a pronoun.

  • Never use a word you don't know the meaning of or a word that is not comfortable for you to use (especially if your purpose is to impress instead of explain).

  • Never ramble. Keep a tight check on your digression. If you find yourself out there in ramble-land, rein in your brain--stay focused on the main idea.

  • Use sentence fragments, even for effect, in scholarly writing.

  • Never "suck up" to the writer by stating how great he or she is. It is unlikely that you have read everything this author has written, so your assessment of his or her work is not going to be valid anyway. And, it sounds hollow. And, it doesn't add anything to your argument. Focus on the text as if you don't know who wrote it.

Excise These Words or Phrases from your Vocabulary

  • very

  • whole (as in "the whole story" or "the whole novel")

  • Phrasal verbs (2/3 word verbs)

Phrasal verbs (a species of idiom) are an important part of the language, but we tend to avoid them where we can in academic writing and choose a different verb

But the most important thing is that the government finds out what the real needs are.

Needs to be transformed into

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conduct a needs analysis.

Questions Good Thinkers Ask

  • Am I saying what I mean?

  • Does this make sense?

  • Have I made good connections between ideas?

  • Are my ideas logical?

Always, Always List

  • Understand the prompt.

  • Use the literary present tense. In literature, a character is living in the present.

  • Assume your reader has read the text.

  • Assume your reader has a full understanding of literary elements and conventions.

  • Focus on the text, not on a personal feeling or reaction to the text. Personal insight is important to your understanding, but ignoring the text in favor of personal response will result in an "empty" essay.

Try-To avoid usage of the verb and forms of the word to be:

What’s So Wrong with “To Be” Verbs?

  1. The “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been are state of being verbs, which means that they unduly claim a degree of permanence. For example, “I am hungry.” For most Americans, hunger is only a temporary condition.

  2. The “to be” verbs claim absolute truth and exclude other views. “Classical music is very sophisticated.” Few would agree that all classical compositions are always sophisticated.

  3. The “to be” verbs are general and lack specificity. A mother may tell her child, “Be good at school today.” The more specific “Don’t talk when the teacher talks today” would probably work better.

  4. The “to be” verbs are vague. For example, “That school is great.” Clarify the sentence as “That school has wonderful teachers, terrific students, and supportive parents.”

  5. The “to be” verbs often confuse the reader about the subject of the sentence. For example, “It was nice of you to visit.” Who or what is the “It?”

How to Fix It:

For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.”

Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.”

Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs.

Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”


A good introduction invites reading. It will give the author and the title of the work (even if you only have a passage) and lead the reader into a clear, concise thesis statement that will accurately reflect the given prompt. The introduction will also begin to address your “answer” to the “so what?” question.

  1. What does this prompt want me to do?

a. What parts of the passage/text will help me to do it?

b. What literary elements do I need to consider?

  1. Answer this question: So what?

a. What is the insight you gain from this text?

b. What truths can you reveal about this passage to your reader?

Body Paragraphs (1, 2, and 3):

Topic Sentence (Claim)

“Support from Text”

Explanatory Sentences ((your “how” and/or “why”)

Transitions that would help make logical connections:


A good conclusion needs a good transition sentence.

The purpose of the conclusion is to bring the essay to a satisfactory ending. You don’t want to introduce new ideas in the conclusion, but you can extend the thinking into the realm of personal reflection (your thinking about the “so what?” question).

You can summarize the main points of the essay, also, but sometimes summary conclusions sound stilted and voiceless.

Editing Marks for Essays


Awkward phrasing or syntax which makes the sentence unclear.


Cause/Effect error.


State your claim.


Comma splice (you have joined two independent clauses with only a comma).


Empty sentence. This sentence really doesn't say anything important or add to the argument in any meaningful way.


Explain what you mean. Maybe you need to show why or how.


False claim. You've made a fact error.


Introduce quotation/citation. You must give context before using the source material.


Use the literary present tense.


This sentence reads like I've got a mouth full of marbles; it's a lot of words and it just sounds "bad."


Not grammatically correct.


Not a sentence.


Organization is not good.


Punctuation error.


Redundant; you've said this before.


Run on sentence.


Spelling (or the word is simply circled).


Support is missing, lacking, needed.


You need a transition (sentence, phrase or word) to connect ideas here.


You need a topic sentence.


Value of sentence is questioned. How does this sentence support the main point?


Word choice is questioned. Either this word is wrong in this context or is not effective.


Well stated.


Weave quotations in to make a smooth read and a grammatically correct sentence.


Parallel construction error.

Unclear logical leap or connection is missing.

Great point, good insight, or I just like this!


Great point, good insight, or I just like this!


I don't understand what you're trying to say.

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