Conversational Writing vs. Formal Writing
Writing for Your Audience
Did you know that most people read at an 8th grade level? That means if you want to keep most people's attention, you can't write as if you're trying to impress college professors.
On the web, it's even more important to write in a conversational tone. People want information, and they want it fast. If they think your writing is stuffy and boring, they'll click the back button and go somewhere else.
What is Formal Writing?
This is academic writing. Instead of writing to entertain or inform everyday people, you write as if you were turning in an essay or putting together a legal document.
Many people think formal writing is superior because it makes you sound educated. You must know what you're talking about, because you always write "it is" instead of "it's."
You never offend anyone because you are neutral and always write in the passive voice. You never use slang or abbreviations.
When you use formal written English, you usually come off sounding unnatural and, well, stuffy. Formal writing has its place, but unfortunately many people use it for the wrong reasons.
What is Conversational Writing?
Conversational writing means writing the way you talk. Well, almost. You're writing the way you'd talk if you trimmed out all the pauses, stumbling, "uhs," and "y'knows." (Hardly anyone speaks perfectly. I sure don't!)
Conversational writing isn't an excuse to write sloppy. It just means writing in a clear, concise way that anyone can understand.
Writing in a conversational way means connecting with your readers. It's about trying to give them a reason to care about what you have to say. It's about being genuine.
Bird by Bird
This is one of my favorite books about writing. Anne Lamott's style is funny, personal, and definitely conversational. She doesn't paint a pretty picture of what it means to be a writer; she tells it like it is, or at least the way it was back in 1995.
This is not a how-to book. However, there's valuable advice buried within the anecdotes.
The Rules of Formal Writing
- No contractions: Write "it is," never "it's." Write "do not," never "don't." Under no circumstances shall you write "he'll" when you mean "he will!"
- Passive voice: Nobody threw a ball. Instead, a ball was thrown. No chicken crossed the road; the road was crossed by the chicken.
- No slang or jargon: It does not "rain cats and dogs." An iPod is not "cool" or "spiffy."
- Never use "I" or "you:" Be impersonal.
- Avoid asking questions: People might think you're trying to be conversational.
- Non-sexist language: You will be tarred and feathered if you say "he" rather than "he or she." Heaven forbid you say "mankind" instead of "humanity."
- No abbreviations: You will spell out "Internal Revenue Service."
- Never use exclamation points. Unless you're quoting someone, maybe.
The Real Problem with Formal Writing: It's More about You
I know someone who demands his ghostwriters to write web articles in a formal style. It's not because he thinks formal writing is more appropriate for his subject or audience. He said he wants to be seen as a sage, not one of the boys.
But here's the thing: When you're writing to inform, entertain, or sell, you want to be one of the boys (or girls). Conversational writing isn't about playing dumb or being smarmy. It means sounding natural and genuine.
When you write, are you thinking more about your audience, or more about yourself? Are you more concerned about what your readers get from your writing, or are you more concerned about how you sound?
The real problem with highly formal writing, at least when you're writing for the masses, is that it encourages self-indulgence. Formal writing is less about connecting with people and more about posturing.
Rules for Effective Conversational Writing
- Use contractions: You'll sound like a normal person if you say "don't" and "won't."
- Use "I" and "you:" You don't have to, but it makes your writing more personal. It's like you're really talking to your readers.
- Don't be wordy: Say what needs to be said, but don't ramble or fill your sentences with unnecessary words.
- Don't use five dollar words: Pulchritudinous means "physically beautiful," but it sounds like something you vomit.
- Don't use the passive voice: This really muddles things up. "A decision was reached" is a limp noodle compared to, "I made a decision."
Writing Copy for Dummies
Every time I go to the bookstore, I'm struck by the lack of books about writing copy. Most books about writing are geared towards novel writing. While Writing Copy for Dummies is one of the few copywriting books I've seen at the bookstore lately, it's still very good.
The book covers copy for websites, email, and general advertising. Kranz wrote it with non-writers in mind, but I think even professional writers would benefit from it. It's interesting and easy to understand.
Tips for Writing Conversationally
- Ask yourself if what you wrote sounds like something you'd say out loud. If your writing is filled with words that wouldn't come naturally to you in a conversation, it probably needs some changes.
- Say less, not more. It's better to start your first draft by saying more than necessary, then cut out all the fluff.
- Leave the thesaurus alone. Don't use it if you're just looking for a fancier word. Consult the thesaurus during those moments when you honestly can't think of the right word.
- Simple is beautiful. Try to make things as clear and easy to understand as possible.
When Should You Use Formal Writing?
Formal writing thrives in the academic world. If you're going to do a school essay or research paper, you'd better use formal written English.
Formal writing is appropriate for reference materials, such as an encyclopedia. However, most people don't read encyclopedias from cover to cover. We just refer to them when we need them.
You'd also use this style when you're writing a business letter of some sort. You know, the kind of letter you might get from a homeowners' association telling you to mow your grass.
There may be other times when people expect you to write in a formal style. If you were a lawyer or a doctor writing professionally about your field, for example, it might be more beneficial to use formal written English.
The Value of Learning Formal Writing
It's useful to know the rules of formal writing, because the rules give you a solid foundation to work with. To paraphrase the Dali Lama, learn the rules first, then you'll know how to break them properly.
It's a little like learning to write in cursive. At first you try to duplicate all those clean, perfect loops. Once you've done it several times and understand the basics, your own style begins to evolve.
What are your thoughts on conversational vs. formal writing?