Myths About Formal Writing

Learning to write in a formal style or voice can be difficult and people often look for rules they can follow to produce formal writing by formula. Some of these rules can be useful and effective, such as “do not use slang or colloquial expressions unless they are in quotes”. Unfortunately, other rules are less useful and can lead to weak or awkward writing. Today, we’re going to cover three of the most common and damaging myths about formal writing.

Myth #1: You should never use contractions in formal writing.

This is something that I hear commonly, even from experienced writers who should know better, and it strikes me as a bizarre idea. The problem seems to be that people believe that contractions sound more natural and they associate that natural sound with an informal style of writing. However, sounding awkward and clunky is not necessarily a characteristic of formal writing. For example:

The project can not move forward as a result of the negligent behavior of the shipping department. It has become obvious that they have not been processing orders properly and as a result many shipments have been delayed or lost.


The project can’t move forward as a result of the negligent behavior of the shipping department. It has become obvious that they haven’t been processing orders properly and as a result many shipments have been delayed or lost.

There are some exceptions. Although “ain’t” is rather unfairly maligned, it is still considered unprofessional and should not be used in formal writing. Also, you may have noticed that in the above passage I still used “it has” instead of “it’s”. This is because “it’s” is a contraction that can mean multiple things and such contractions shouldn’t be used in formal writing in order to aid in readability. However, in general as long as contractions are being used properly and with moderation, there is no problem using them in formal writing.

Myth #2: Never use the first-person in formal writing.

This is one of the all time famous myths about formal writing. Almost everyone has been told by some well-meaning teacher that you shouldn’t use a first-person perspective in formal writing. And while the advice has some merit, there is a tendency for young writers to write more casually and informally in the first person, there are plenty of times when avoiding the first person can lead to problems.

One of the major problems it causes is the overuse of the passive voice. Writers that attempt to describe their own ideas and opinions without a first-person perspective usually end up simply removing the “I” from the passage and ending up with rather unclear statements such as:

It has been noticed that lightning storms are a common feature in Romantic literature.

And that is just terrible writing. Formal writing should utilize the first-person perspective whenever it would be awkward or unclear to not use it. Otherwise, it should attempt to maintain an objective tone, but it should never sacrifice readability in such a manner.

Myth #3: Formal writing can’t be funny.

One of the most frustrating beliefs of young writers is that humor, wit, and jokes are somehow “unprofessional” or “informal”. There is a long and proud tradition of even the stodgiest academics filling their works with snarky asides and silly wordplay. As long as the humor doesn’t distract from the main point, writers should stop mistaking “grim and humorless” for a sign of professional maturity and feel free to keep things light-hearted. Most of their readers will love them for it. After all, everyone likes to laugh.

There are quite a few other myths about formal writing, but the key to all of them is to consider how they are actually aiding you in communicating with your audience. A little critical thought will go a long ways, just remember that the key to everything in formal writing is usually moderation. Next time, we’ll move on to a different subject: plagiarism and how to avoid it. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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