When should I use formal writing?

Posted on 1 April 2014 by Lucy Gregory

So here’s the question. When writing formal documents at work, is it better to speak to the reader direct and use ‘everyday English’ or to use impersonal official language?

And the answer? In almost every instance, it’s better to speak to the reader direct and use everyday English. It’s much easier to read.

Your objective as a writer is to convey your message as clearly as possible. If your reader is slowed down or bored to death by overly complicated language, then you’re not achieving that objective.

Compare these two sentences with each other:

  1. The receipt of your communication is hereby acknowledged with thanks.

  3. Thank you for your letter.

You might think the first sentence sounds ‘better’, but imagine a whole document written like that. Exhausting!
Or how about these two?

  1. Members of the audience are requested to refrain from talking during the performance.

  3. Please be quiet during the show.

No one’s going to applaud the writer of sentence number one for that performance.

Some people think they come across as more intelligent or educated if they use formal writing, but they don’t. And if you’re tempted to meander down the river of verbosity, remember Albert Einstein’s famous quote:

‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’