Not Happy Using Only Formal Tone? Try Using an Informal Tone Strategically

It can be very hard to strike the right Tone in academic writing. Although scholarly writing usually involves more formality than we use in everyday speech, a writer who sticks to a strictly formal tone runs the risk of sounding a bit stiff or robot-like to readers. In other cases, writing that employs a consistently formal tone will sound just okay to a reader—in other words, they won’t feel like the tone is ‘off’ or inappropriate—but they may still experience your writing as being a bit bland and monotonous. This alone is a problem because writing that feels like a chore to get through won’t make as much of an impression on the person who reads it. Writing informally creates a conversational tone, which can be useful for breaking up the rhythm of your writing, making an emotional appeal to your reader, or simply being more direct. This entry will discuss what makes up an informal tone in academic writing and includes an exercise for rewriting a section with uncertain tone in an informal style.

As we discuss in the Introduction to this section, tone is about establishing a relationship between a writer and a reader. Formal tone is privileged in academic writing because it prioritizes precision of meaning so that readers can understand the more complex concepts an academic writer is trying to communicate. However, a formal tone is not always the best choice for a section of academic writing. If you’re speaking about personal experiences, or narrating a hypothetical situation, a formal tone could come across as removed or stuffy. In these cases, writing more informally might help you establish a different relationship with your reader.

An informal tone does not mean cliches or slang, which have the same downside as jargon (potentially confusing readers with unclear language). It does not mean writing exactly as we speak. Ideally, it means writing directly, and with a presumed level of intimacy. When writing informally, you might use contractions more frequently, and you might even address the reader directly. The goal when using informal language on purpose is to strike a balance: to create a connection through language choices, but not sacrifice clarity through unfamiliar words or run-on sentences.

Informal language can aid clarity just as formal language can. For example, using “I” is sometimes discouraged in academic writing because it comes across as informal. However, using “I” can also eliminate uses of the passive voice (“It was found in the study” vs “In this study, I found”). Another example of supposedly informal language aiding understanding is direct description. You might start by explaining a theoretical concept in academic language, and then rephrase it in more straightforward language. Expressing a complex idea in a simpler way can help make sure the reader understands the concept (and it also ensures you know enough about the concept yourself to paraphrase it). In many situations, informal language can effectively communicate important information to your reader.

In a similar way, informal language can also be rhetorically effective when you need to communicate information to the reader. This is true, for example, when you want to anticipate and respond to a reader’s potential objections about an argument you’ve made. A statement about how the reader might respond could be formal (“One might argue in response that…”), but an informal address makes it feel like you’re addressing the reader directly, and anticipating their particular arguments (“When you hear this, you might say…”). Another use of direct address through informal language could be when you’re trying to use humor or to provide a personal anecdote: being selectively more informal can make the turn away from your usual writing Style feel comfortable, as if you were breaking the fourth wall for a minute to tell a joke or a story. These moments emotionally connect readers to your writing and can be great opportunities for calls to action, moments of pause, or just a change in tone.

The following exercise walks you through purposefully including informal tone in your writing, to determine what tone you want to strike.

Step 1: Look through your paper and locate a sentence or group of sentences where you want to experiment with the formality of your language. Good choices include a place where you present information to your reader, like a summary or a discussion, an introduction, or anecdotes. (Note: you may find it helpful to look for one kind of situation at a time, for example, moments when you are summing up complicated information or ideas that you’ve already communicated at more length.) Notice any signs of formal or informal tone: complex words, precision, and neutral language (formal) or contractions, direct address and greatly varied sentence length (informal).

Step 2: Rewrite the sentence(s) separately, trying to restate the information you conveyed in the original paragraph. Your goal here should be to write as informally as you can. Use “I” statements and contractions, address the reader, and/or use simpler forms of words than you’d normally use. Try to communicate the main point as directly as you can.

Step 3: Look at the two versions of the sentence(s) next to each other. Which one do you find clearer or easier to read? Is the informal one able to accurately convey the message of the original? Does either one come across as contrived or confusing?

Step 4: Make any changes you think are necessary to the original, based on your informal version. You don’t need to change everything, but you might find that one component of the informal tone—using contractions, for example—sounds clearer or more natural than what you had before. Sometimes, you may even find that using both versions creates a helpful effect. This usually involves starting with the formal version and then restating the point informally.

The purpose of this exercise is to help you evaluate what effect your language in the original sentence or group of sentences is having. Are you coming across overly familiar? Or, does your formality confuse the ideas you’re trying to convey? Rather than choosing between the two options—formal or informal—this gives you an opportunity to gauge the tone you want to adopt, and to apply the sentence-level techniques that help you get there.

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