Should Web Writing Be Formal or Informal?

by • August 23, 2013

Photo of Anne Wayman.By Anne Wayman

Recently a reader of my writing blog asked the following (edited for clarity):

What’s your opinion about using you instead of one when you’re writing for the web or for magazines? Some experts, including Grammarly, say it should beone. I think using you is more engaging.

Thanks, Irene.

Here’s how I expect to answer her:

Irene, I agree, generally informal writing is more engaging than formal writing. Let me set up an example to make this clear.

A sentence like this is formal:

When addressing the public one ought to speak more slowly than one ordinarily talks.

You and I would probably write that sentence like this:

When you talk to the public you ought to speak more slowly than you usually speak.

And indeed Grammarly does flag the use of you in this example as “personal” and advises that formal writing requires a more impersonal approach. It suggests either rephrasing to avoid the pronoun or to substitute one for you.

But notice, that suggestion is only if the writing is to be formal.

So what is formal writing?

Richard Nordquist, About.com’s guide to grammar and usage defines formal writing this way:

“A broad term for speech or writing marked by an impersonal, objective, and precise use of language. A formal prose style is typically used in scholarly books and articles, technical reports, research papers, and legal documents. . .”

So, if you’re writing scholarly books and articles, or technical papers, maybe the impersonal, formal approach is better. But I wonder. Objective and precise use of language is often necessary even in informal writing—I aim for that when I’m talking about freelance writing in my blogs.

I poked around to see if I could find a blog that used formal language. It turns out The Atlantic magazine is incorporating academic blogs onto its site—not for their use of language, but as a better approach to understanding science. It seemed like a place to start looking at the language bloggers use.

Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal said there: “I’m looking for researchers, scholars, and academics who don’t post more than once per day.” He gives eight examples of blogs he thinks are, to use his term, exemplary. I glanced at all eight (I realized if I did more than that I’d be reading those blogs all day, as it is a fascinating group).

None of the blogs used what I would consider stiff, formal language. The web version of JAMA, the peer reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association, is using a more formal language than I do on my blog. But it’s eminently readable. Even the opinions rendered by our Supreme Court are pretty readable once you get past the Latin and the way they cite other law.

I’ve started finding examples of academic, legal, and other kinds of writing that might be considered formal – and then defining them as readable or not. I suspect that’s actually a more important question and goal for a writer than becoming too concerned about formal and informal language or personal and impersonal pronouns.

My hunch, too, is that over the last decade or so all writing, including formal writing, has become more informal. While some might lament the lack of rules and structure in much of today’s writing I like it – as long as it communicates clearly, accurately, and completely.

How do you distinguish between formal and informal language? When do you use formal writing? When do you use informal writing?

Anne Wayman has been writing for well over 30 years now, and blogging about freelance writing for more than a decade. With a partner she recently launched AboutWritingSquared.com, home of the 5 Buck Forum, the supportive forum for writers.

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