Editing Tips: A Quick Guide to Formal Writing

One key stylistic distinction for proofreading is between informal and formal writing. But what is formal writing? What makes it formal? And when should a document use a formal style? In this post, we look at what you need to know to work on formal documents.

What Are the Key Stylistic Features of Formal Writing?

Formal writing has several key features. These include:

  • Following standard spelling, punctuation, and grammar rules.
  • Using full sentences rather than sentence fragments.
  • An impersonal, objective tone.
  • Using complex language or technical terminology.
  • Not using colloquial language or slang.
  • Avoiding most contractions and other informal abbreviations.
  • Using formal modes of address (e.g. ‘Dear Ms Harris’, not ‘Hi, Joanna!’).
  • A tendency to avoid exclamation marks.

Different kinds of writing may also have specific requirements (e.g. academic writing requires the author to reference all sources). But the qualities above should apply in most cases.

When Is a Formal Writing Style Appropriate?

So, when should you ensure that a document is sufficiently formal? Key cases include:

  • Academic writing, such as university essays or research papers.
  • Formal business writing, including business reports and plans.
  • Legal, medical, and other professional documents.
  • When communicating with an authority figure.
  • When contacting someone you don’t know, especially in a professional capacity.
  • Documents associated with formal occasions (e.g. weddings, funerals).

There is room for variation here. Some companies adopt a playful brand voice for internal documents, so these may be less formal than a business plan. And it may be fine to use a more relaxed, informal writing style in a work email if you already know the recipient well.

The key is ensuring that the writing style in a document matches the situation at hand.

Proofreading Formal Writing

Ultimately, the tone of a document is your client’s decision. If they are committed to writing a business plan full of slang and sentence fragments, the most you can do is suggest this would be a little unconventional and may affect their chances of being taken seriously!

But if your client has asked you to help them achieve a formal tone, keep an eye out for the stylistic features listed above and either make corrections or leave feedback as required.

Keep in mind, though, that very formal writing – i.e. writing that sticks inflexibly to traditional grammar and language, such as insisting on using ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’ as an object pronoun – may sound stuffy or old-fashioned to some people.

As such, when proofreading, you should always ensure the degree of formality fits the intended purpose and audience of the document.

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