August 2008
Writing eTips UpWrite Press

Using the Correct Level of Formality


Your writing should get its message across in the most effective way possible, and that means using a level of formality appropriate for your reader. To choose the correct level of formality, consider the following:

  • Purpose. What are you trying to accomplish with this message?
  • Form. Are you writing a casual email or a major proposal?
  • Topic. How important is the message?
  • Reader. Is your reader friendly, neutral, or hostile? Is he or she a supervisor, a subordinate, or a colleague?

Once you have determined these elements, you can decide if your writing should be formal, informal, or in between. Here are some hints to guide your choice.

Formal tone is professional and should be used for most correspondence and business materials, including legal documents and bad-news messages. Establish formality by avoiding personal pronouns and contractions and by maintaining a serious, objective style.

Moderate tone is friendly but still professional. Use it for messages to coworkers and other business acquaintances with whom you have a familiar relationship. This tone is also appropriate for casual business correspondence, including email and memos.

Informal tone is personal. It’s best to use it for non-work-related correspondence, although you may safely employ it for quick emails or instant messages to coworkers. Informal messages may include appropriate jargon and proper humor.

Whatever tone you use for any audience, avoid profanity, vulgarity, and even negativity. As always, your writing reveals much about you, so present yourself in the best light.

You can find more information about using the correct level of formality on page 88 of Business and Sales Correspondence, part of the EZ Series of business writing materials from UpWrite Press. Or review page 144 of Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing & Communicating in the Workplace.


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That Little Extra

If you depend on your mouse for every editing move when writing, you might want to consider learning some keyboard shortcuts—quick key combinations that accomplish common tasks. Most editing options (cut, paste, select, bold, italic, and so on) can be accomplished by pressing a specific key combination.

Many word-processing programs have built-in key combinations for common tasks. For example, in Microsoft Word, to move a selection by cut and paste, highlight the word(s) you wish to cut and then press Control + X to remove them from the page to your computer’s “clipboard.” Then position your cursor where you want to paste the word(s) and press Control + V to place the selection there.

There is a keyboard shortcut for almost every editing option, from font formats to insertion of special characters. Once you grow familiar with the shortcuts for tasks you commonly face, you'll wonder how you ever got by without them!

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We invite you to be part of our monthly eTips. Each month we pose a question or problem regarding the use of writing in business. Send us your reply along with your name, your company’s name, and a brief description of what you do. We will print the best responses, and you will get your name out to our more than 5,000 subscribers! (We reserve the right to edit your remarks for fit and suitability.)


August Writers’ Forum Topic

Many offices have an open environment, either with or without cubicles that do little to block out extraneous noise. How does your office try to minimize such noise? How do you deal with a nearby coworker who plays music or talks on the phone in a loud voice? In short, how do you handle outside distractions when you are working? Share with us your experiences, hints, and advice.

Email your response to Write “August Writers’ Forum” in the subject line, and you could see your reply in the eTips Mid-Month Mini.

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