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Writing Well

 

The favor of a reply is requested.    The tone is formal.
Please let us know if you’re coming. The tone is informal.
 
Some situations call for a formal tone – dealing with the government, handling a legal issue, communicating with people you do not know well. Other situations require a lighter touch. People often ask me how to create a more formal or less formal tone. Three factors influence the formality of a piece of writing. You can use them to create the level of formality that is appropriate to your situation.  

Using the Passive Voice

The passive voice builds distance between you and your reader. It adds formality to your tone. Just a refresher: The ball was hit by the boy is passive. The boy hit the ball is active. The passive voice is always formed with a helping verb such as is, am, are, was, were, have, etc. For example, you could write:
  • Documents were reviewed by the Chicago due diligence team.
  • Prices are set by in-house sales representatives.
These sentences have an element of formality. When we switch to the active voice, we ask, “Who did the action?” and make that agent the grammatical subject of the sentence. So in the above examples, we would write:
  • The Chicago due diligence team reviewed the documents.
  • In-house sales representatives set the prices.
The active voice is more direct and is easier to understand. If you want to build a sense of connection with your reader, use the active voice. If you want to create distance and formality, use the passive.

Using Nouns Instead of Verbs

  • Work will commence upon receipt of authorization.
  • It is my belief that making the choice of Plan A would be to your benefit.
In both these cases, the main ideas of the sentence are couched in nouns: work/authorization in the first sentence and belief/choice/benefit in the second. Note the lack of passion in these statements.
Verbs are the engines of language. Nouns do not move until they encounter verbs.  Obviously, every sentence contains nouns as well as verbs.  We aim to eliminate unnecessary nouns, which are nouns that could be rephrased as verbs. If you express  your main message in stodgy, sludgy nouns, you slow it down; phrase it in verbs and your thoughts race straight into your reader’s mind. See the difference:
  • We will begin to work as soon as you authorize us.
  • I believe that choosing Plan A would benefit you.
Which sentences sounded more authentic? Which sounded more distant? Verbs give  you a more informal tone that conveys immediacy and action. Using nouns and nominalizations makes your writing more high-brow and formal, but  it also builds barriers between you and your reader.

Using Personal Pronouns

Compare these sentences:
  • The firm requests that clients sign in upon arrival.
  • Please sign in when you arrive.
Using words like we/you/I warms up the tone of your writing. Using impersonal words like firm, company, client, customer, district and pronouns like one makes you sound more stiff and formal. If you want to build distance, eschew the personal. If you want to build bridges, use words that your readers will associate with real individuals.
Using first names always makes a document more informal; using titles like Ms and Mr makes your tone more formal.
 
Using a formal tone is neither good nor bad. Different situations demand different levels of formality. Only you can judge the degree of formality your situation requires. Being aware of the tools mentioned here can empower you to better control the formality of your writing.
Do not assume that writing more formally is always your best choice. You can be reasonably informal and still be appropriate in the business world.  Formal writing comes with a cost: It is harder for your reader to understand. So use it when you need it, but don’t default to it. Most of your writing should be, in the words of the great Jacques Barzun, simple and direct.
 
©2016 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved


Read Writamins on these topics:

Emailing Effectively
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/emailing-effectively

Writing Well
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/writing-well

Choosing the Right Word
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/choosing-the-right-word

Thoughts on Writing
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/thoughts-on-writing

Writing Within Organizations
http://www.worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/writing-within-organizations

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Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
  • Customized. +

    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs. We meet with you, analyze writing samples from your organization, and customize our training to target the specific challenges that employees in your organization face.
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    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
  • Proven results. +

    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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