Formal writing fails to use the potential of creative elements in order to be effective in today’s world
By Nathan Hefty
Formal writing is a staple of the academic and professional world; whether you’re writing an essay, an email, or reporting scientific findings to the public in an article, formal writing follows you everywhere. It is promoted as the most effective way to organize and express ideas.
These are bold claims that most writers and readers in modern times can’t relate with. Formal writing needs to be updated to meet all the potential writing has.
No matter what you’re writing and if it’s academic or professional, there are some uniting rules for formal writing. A writer shouldn’t use first or second person to sound objective, avoid abbreviations and contractions to seem thorough, and eliminate slang to be professional.
They should also use passive voice to sound respectful, standard diction for accuracy, use phrases with literal meanings to stay factual, and use longer complex sentences and sophisticated vocabulary to add to their point.
All these aspects are intended to create a formal tone, but are not so useful anymore. They either fail to accomplish anything, or aren’t as important in a modern setting.
Many young writers and audiences have no problem with first person, abbreviations, contractions, slang, figurative language, or active voice. It doesn’t negatively affect their view of the writer, nor does it make the piece sound unprofessional and not worth the read. In fact, these elements may even add a tone that seems more presentable and makes them want to keep reading as well as help modern audiences appreciate the writer and their point.
On the other hand, there are some foundational components of formal writing that now hinder its objectives.
Sophisticated, or really more difficult, vocabulary gets overused by writers trying to seem advanced, and weighs down their point with jargon. A certain level of it may be acceptable in certain fields, but overall it makes the writing choppy. Overuse of vocabulary is so much of a problem that there are efforts in government agencies to make policies against it.
Alongside vocabulary comes long, complicated sentences. In short they are hard to understand. They lengthen the piece but say the same thing, and lose the reader’s attention. That would’ve been all I had to say on that if it wasn’t for a recent example from good old English class.
The topic just so happened to be on persuasive and argumentative techniques. We read Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.” The point and the tone of the essay are interesting from an academic standpoint. It also helps that I have interest in history and knowledge from a Government and Politics course.
Even so, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the structure. It consisted of lengthy sentences with a complicated structure, full of interruptor phrases, that made it difficult to read. It could’ve been simpler and made the same point. Instead, its idea-loaded sentences started to conflict in my mind so I was left guessing exactly what Thoreau meant in some areas.
And before it’s brought up, no this isn’t just a case of old English being a lawless mess. English rules became standardized at the beginning of the 19th century. Thoreau was born in 1817, after English rules were standardized, and wrote this piece many years later so his complicated writing is probably intentional since he is writing an essay.
According to the lesson, there were both logos and pathos employed in the article but the latter was lost due to the complicated sentences, and indetectable from the formal tone he was projecting.
Ethos, logos, and pathos are techniques I’d forgotten about until recent.
Ethos is the position of the writer and why they believe their point. It establishes credibility. Upon more research, it turns out to actually relate to the feelings of a writer that they hope to convince an audience of (this trustworthy person believes this and people could be convinced to accept their findings and beliefs).
Logos uses facts, reasoning, or data to prove a point or persuade the audience.
Pathos makes an appeal to an audience’s emotions. It is different from ethos since it directly tries to evoke the emotions in the audience.
These techniques can be used in formal writing styles, yet pathos is seen as improper for it. The reason for this lies in being objective, but bias always slips through the way people write. Even ethos is establishing the opinion of the writer and their supporting sources, and is simultaneously used as a way to establish credibility, funny. Ethos is what the author feels that they will describe, defend, etc. Pathos is ethos that conjures feelings within the reader.
Given the chance, pathos can be a useful tool. It can establish a connection to the audience, depict a concept more vividly, and prove a point more powerfully.
The use of pathos is one thing, it’s meant as a persuasive technique and still used in some formal writing. What about elements from creative writing? Those are absolutely informal, right? Indeed, but they can also serve to promote a formal piece if allowed.
The focus on detailed descriptions in creative writing could give a comprehensive image when describing artifacts, inventions, and more. Paired with controlled amounts of vivid language, the audience would have a better idea of what the writer is detailing.
Figurative language is another. It is inappropriate for a formal piece since it is making connections between concepts that don’t directly relate and thus “untruthful”. That, in itself, is a jump in logic. Metaphors and similes aren’t directly truthful but convey a true concept like any other example of anecdote would. That doesn’t mean they are untrustworthy devices.
The goal of creative writing is to summarize experiences, express opinions, ideas, or emotions. It is made to do much of what formal writers attempt to do, so why not let it?
Pathos and other creative elements get excluded from formal writing since they don’t meet the requirements for that type of writing. The problem is, formal is a vague concept. All these rules are commonly accepted since they are a method of organizing information, but they shouldn’t be the only method. Formal writing as we know it is just one view on what is professional. Writers should have some freedom to choose.
A very rigid structure is useless, as long as the writing is effective, any style should be acceptable. Rigid structure aims to have a good presentation to the audience and have concise ideas, but has the opposite effect today. writing, by its nature, is meant to be expressive and it’s something young writers and readers expect.
Strict parameters for writing leads to assumptions about a person and invalidation of their point based solely on how they wrote. For example, one of the reasons against using contractions is that it is lazy writing. In the scenario of writing a cover letter to a resume, this could indicate that the candidate is not hard working, cuts corners, and could produce poor work. What if that person has a good resume but gets denied a position simply because they don’t write the way someone prefers?
The way I’m writing is breaking a lot of formal writing rules, still carries a respectful tone, and effectively orders and describes my point. It also includes voice and flare, which is exactly what engages me when I read news or scientific findings. In many ways, writing is more effective this way.
Putting writing into a rigid box limits the ways ideas can be expressed by the writer. Especially nowadays, formal writing loses engagement of the reader and writer alike and feels unnatural. It forces writers to funnel all their valid points and extensive, creative thinking, and often professional innovations, into a form that devoids them of their impact; all this so it can be accepted.
There is also a great effect on readers.
Young people want simplified, quick information. Using formal tone is slow, difficult, and boring. People now want to be entertained to keep their attention. Creative elements add speed, simplification, and engaging tone which is actually a positive.
Effective communication is redefined by these new parameters and demands the use of informal elements.
Writers from any institution would do well to use pathos as a way to be honest and open which will establish ethos- credibility in the eyes of your readers.
A diluted version of formal tone may also help how the ideas in the text go over with the audience. Simplify ideas and language for most people to understand. That way, they can appreciate the point being made. It is also useful to speak normal language to come off with a better tone with younger audiences. A formal tone can now come off as snobbish or even just confusing. People will not only be able to understand better, but also willing to accept a writer’s ideas if they write this way.
New times and new generations bring a need for changes in how we look at writing and communication. Real writing is that which has real voice and real impact. The current state of formal writing falls short since it cannot utilize real emotion, description, and immersion to carry a point. It’s time to accept it- Formal writing is not real writing.