Formal and Informal Writing Styles

See also: Writing in Plain English

This page covers the key aspects of formal and informal writing styles. Before deciding which style is appropriate to your message you should read our page: Know your Audience.

You may also find our page: Writing Styles helpful, part of our study skills section, it summarises the main styles of writing that a student may encounter during their studies.

Informal Writing Style

  • Colloquial – Informal writing is similar to a spoken conversation.  Informal writing may include slang, figures of speech, broken syntax, asides and so on.  Informal writing takes a personal tone as if you were speaking directly to your audience (the reader). You can use the first or third person point of view (I and we), and you are likely to address the reader using second person (you and your).

  • Simple – Short sentences are acceptable and sometimes essential to making a point in informal writing. There may be incomplete sentences or ellipsis(…) to make points.

  • Contractions and Abbreviations – Words are likely to be simplified using contractions (for example, I’m, doesn’t, couldn’t, it’s) and abbreviations (e.g. TV, photos) whenever possible.

  • Empathy and Emotion – The author can show empathy towards the reader regarding the complexity of a thought and help them through that complexity. See our page: What is Empathy? for more.

Formal Writing Style

  • Complex – Longer sentences are likely to be more prevalent in formal writing. You need to be as thorough as possible with your approach to each topic when you are using a formal style. Each main point needs to be introduced, elaborated and concluded.

  • Objective – State main points confidently and offer full support arguments. A formal writing style shows a limited range of emotions and avoids emotive punctuation such as exclamation points, ellipsis, etc., unless they are being cited from another source.

  • Full Words – No contractions should be used to simplify words (in other words use "It is" rather than "It's").  Abbreviations must be spelt out in full when first used, the only exceptions being when the acronym is better known than the full name (BBC, ITV or NATO for example).

  • Third Person – Formal writing is not a personal writing style.  The formal writer is disconnected from the topic and does not use the first person point of view (I or we) or second person (you).

When to Use Formal and Informal Writing

A formal writing style is not necessarily “better” than an informal style, rather each style serves a different purpose and care should be taken in choosing which style to use in each case.  

Writing for professional purposes is likely to require the formal style, although individual communications can use the informal style once you are familiar with the recipient.

Note that emails tend to lend themselves to a less formal style than paper-based communications, but you should still avoid the use of "text talk".

If in doubt as to how formal your writing should be, it is usually better to err on the side of caution and be formal rather than informal.