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Conversational Writing vs. Formal Writing

Updated on July 24, 2011

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

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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

Writing Copy For Dummies
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?

Your thoughts on writing?

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    • profile image

      Jorge 2 years ago

      I have read the original acritle, and I have certain questions as to the methodology:The information used comes from a large bank , as mentioned, so, from the high level of loans related to declared income , the authors come to the conclusion that the loan payments amount to 82% of declared income!Thus, the estimated real income in relation tto the declared one, for professionals, comes to 1.92.My question is : If the authors obtained their information from another large bank , would these numbers for tax evasion be the same?It is known that different large banks in Greece have different criteria for the amount of loans they give out – this being reflected to the funds needed for their recapitalization , this being caused by the loans in the red, as well as the bond haircut.An example to illustrate the point is, rgd. the credit limit of credit cards ( which the authors use as evidence of tax evasion):I have three credit cards, and Bank A, a large bank, gave me a credit limit of 1500 euro, bank B -also large- gave me 4,500 euro, and bank C 3,000 euro.What is one to make of this information?Furthermore, the banks in the USA that were on the brink of bankrupcy in 2008 , due to mismanagement AND because they were giving out loans to people with NO INCOME AT ALL.According to the axiom of the acritle, one should draw the conclusion that the people who received the loans were plainly tax evaders!!

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      DAN MIKWA 3 years ago

      Nice Piece, kindly talk to me:

      Mail: danmikwamagg@gmail.com or

      Skype: dan.mikwa

    • profile image

      mlmvc4556 4 years ago

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    • profile image

      mlmvc4556 4 years ago

      Hello,everyone my name is Lilian from USA i never ever believed in spell until i meet a man called Dr upesa, who help me cast a spell that bring back my ex-lover who left me for one years before our marriage,His spells works beyond my imaginations and today i am happily married two kids and me and my [ex-lover] now husband are very happy more than ever before,what more can i say rather than to say thank you Dr upesa for been there for me,contact him today and your life will never ever remain the same his email is upesaspelltemple@gmail.com

    • profile image

      julianalo 5 years ago

      en. I rehi can\'t thank you enough for all that you have done for me. About a year ago I my partner split up, we had both made BIG mistakes in our relationship. He ended up moving away from me to pursue a new life. I knew in my heart that he would be the only one to make me happy. I was relieved when I found your email on a site about what you have quested 3 to 4 day casting of the reunite us love spell and within 4days mark company had relocated him back to our hometown where I still lived. We immediately reconnected and move in with each other. Our wedding date is set for Summer 2012. Expect to see your invite in the mail!thanks to upesaspelltemple@yahoo.com

    • profile image

      julianalo 5 years ago

      en. I rehi can\'t thank you enough for all that you have done for me. About a year ago I my partner split up, we had both made BIG mistakes in our relationship. He ended up moving away from me to pursue a new life. I knew in my heart that he would be the only one to make me happy. I was relieved when I found your email on a site about what you have quested 3 to 4 day casting of the reunite us love spell and within 4days mark company had relocated him back to our hometown where I still lived. We immediately reconnected and move in with each other. Our wedding date is set for Summer 2012. Expect to see your invite in the mail!thanks to upesaspelltemple@yahoo.com

    • mjdraper profile image

      mjdraper 5 years ago

      I started out as a print journalist, but I really learned about informal writing when I worked in radio. Writing for NPR has to be conversational, because people need to believe you are talking to them alone. By the way, I am sharing this lens on my blog today (http://www.drapercom.com). I normally wouldn't include my email address but I wanted you to know where to look for it.

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      debashish36 5 years ago

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      agent009 6 years ago

      As a novice writer, I tend to rely on formal writing too much to the point where my text sounds like something that was said centuries ago. A delicate mix between the two when they're situation appropriate would help.

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      bsaunders 6 years ago

      Wow. Most of the formal writing examples above have nothing to do with formal writing. Good formal writing uses the active voice. It uses words that are appropriate to the context and the reading level of the audience. Rambling, if anything, is a fault of conversational writing; formal writing uses sentence and paragraph structure to make the piece more concise. Writing that comes off like speech is often not good writing at all. Speech depends upon inflection, tone of voice, and sometimes body language or gesture. Subtract those things, and the content loses meaning. Finally, the skilled writer does not use the thesaurus to find "bigger" words. Its purpose is to find the most precise words.

    • jeffersonline profile image

      jeffersonline 6 years ago

      Great lens with lots of info - and a must for online writing. You have two seconds to engage with a web visitor, and if you sound like their teacher at college, they'll be off like rabbits!

    • betta addict profile image

      betta addict 6 years ago

      I loved this! Thanks! =D

    • profile image

      ambrking 6 years ago

      Useful lens. Thanks

    • CruiseReady profile image

      CruiseReady 6 years ago from East Central Florida

      This was very useful! Thank you.

    • pumpnut lm profile image

      pumpnut lm 7 years ago

      We were taught to write formally in school. I kinda decided to just wing it on my own.

    • profile image

      Leanne Chesser 7 years ago

      Excellent lens and you're absolutely right. My background was in formal writing before I started working online. Once I came online, I had to learn how to write conversationally, concisely and with bullet points and contractions. It's fun!

    • profile image

      JCVacanti 7 years ago

      Thank you, great tips and presented in a clear concise manner.

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      bugmenotever 7 years ago

      You can break almost all of those Formal Writing "Rules" if your writing is really good and the quality of your perspective is high enough. It's all a matter of context and the expectations of your audience.

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      jlshernandez 7 years ago

      Very inspiring lens.

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      Novice-CopyWriter 8 years ago

      more than very good tips

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      Medicinemanwriting1 8 years ago

      Excellent points made here, and solid info. Thanks.

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 8 years ago

      Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

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      SachinRaverkar 8 years ago

      Hello Victoria,

      Gr8 lens indeed!

      I became aware about conversational writing after I read books by Kathy and others, those Head First .... series books. I am particularly excited about conversational writing style and would love to groom myself in it.

      I wonder if there is any book on how to develop conversational writing style. Any suggestions/recommendations?

      See ya!

      Sachin

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      ppanuccio 8 years ago

      Thank You

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      Appreciate this lens! I am still poking around Squidoo before starting my own first lens and this is just what I needed to give me the confidence to begin. Thank you Victoria!

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      jessica85 9 years ago

      Great lens! Thanks for the information, it's very useful and helpful! For a great online encyclopedia, visit http://www.encyclopaedicnet.com.

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      polaris7 9 years ago

      Thanks for this lens! I´ll use it a looot!

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      Achim Thiemermann 9 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I better run and find all the "limp noodles" in my pages. :-)

      This lens is considered by humanity to be one extrapolariglyphonosub...wait a minute - here I go again! What I mean to say is: Thanks for your helpful lens, Victoria! *****

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 9 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Great tips! I've had to unlearn all the rules (from my English major days) to improve my online writing.

    • CherylK profile image

      Cheryl Kohan 9 years ago from Minnesota

      This is soooo useful! Thanks.

    • JohannDog profile image

      Johann The Dog 9 years ago from Northeast Georgia

      Great lens and important info! A 5er from me!

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      WhippetTalk 9 years ago

      I like to write in a manner that makes the reader feel as if a close friend was telling them something of value. And I try to type the way I would speak. What drives me batty is when you see sites with abbreviations for common words (Pls, thx, etc.). I feel like I'm reading a text message! And popular on the web, emails and forums, I find myself annoyed with LOL, or ROTFL and similar abbreviations. Great subject and a 5 star lens!

    • beeobrien lm profile image

      beeobrien lm 9 years ago

      Terrifc lens, Victoria. It's useful to see formal vs. conversational explained so clearly with valuable examples. Congrats on the Showcase.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 9 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I certainly prefer a conversational style, both in my writing and in reading. Great tips!

    • TopStyleTravel profile image

      TopStyleTravel 9 years ago

      Great article! Full of great reminders. After all it is about the audience one is trying to reach.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 9 years ago from USA

      This excellent lens is being featured at the Giant Squid community showcase today!

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 9 years ago

      I'm working on three papers to be handed in to professors. One of them is in English, and I was never really taught how to write formal English - so I will certainly look this up :) I'm so used to writing informally, that writing formally will be a bit of a challenge.

    • ShannonC LM profile image

      Shannon Chiarenza 9 years ago from Vancouver bc

      Great tips! I need all the help I can get with writing...adding to favs

    • rebeccahiatt profile image

      rebeccahiatt 9 years ago

      Very helpful

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      Tutupetunia 9 years ago

      I agree! When I write humourous articles, I LUV to use words like PUHLEEZE and GAG ME - BUT- would never draw from such a lexicon for use in the white papers I pen for a THINK TANK!

      Tanks a lot! This was FAB!

      Tutu

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 9 years ago

      Excellent lens! Great guide to when and how. I write both article and fiction. Its too easy to blur the lines

      5 stars and lensroll to My Mother's Shoes

      Lizzy

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      ellaben 9 years ago

      Yes,I try to gear my writing towards something I like reading myself.I often find informative writing so full of scientific explanations that it puts me off in fact its scary.The thing you are trying to research becomes much bigger than it really is when it doesn't need to be.Just keep it simple.

    • archetekt lm profile image

      archetekt lm 9 years ago

      I agree that Conversational Writing is the way to go nowadays, (outside of some business and academic situations) especially with web content. I've been trying to teach my sister this. I'll have to show her this lens. thanks for this!

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      animal_lover79 9 years ago

      Excellent material. Great lens!

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      jagd_doga 9 years ago

      Nice Guide on the How and When. I myself am a creative writer, so what I hate the most is the dreaded writers block. When the information just can't come through. Nice Lens btw.

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      rockycha 9 years ago

      Generally I eschew obfuscation ;) Is that from Mark Twain? I forgets... great lens!

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 9 years ago from USA

      Fantastic information here. I'm lensrolling this on to my creative writing lens.