Formal writing vs. informal writing

I get paid to write technical documentation, not dime novels, not romance novels, not teen books. In technical writing, you have to be clear and concise, use words that your audience will understand, use active voice, write in the second person (do this; now do that), and use proper grammar and syntax. When writing novels, you get to make the rules—it’s your novel! If you want to break the rules, break the rules! The only rules are the rules that you make. You can call that your “style” if you want. But you still have to be consistent, and still have to consider your audience. You don’t write in French if your audience speaks only English.

  • Writing technical documentation and business documentation is considered formal writing.
  • Writing a novel, this blog, emails to friends, Facebook posts, tweets, and so on is informal writing.

“Well duh,” you’re saying. “Like I didn’t know that already.” Well, no, it doesn’t seem so, because I’m frequently called out for not following the rules of formal writing when I write informally. If you’re writing a Facebook post using “gangsta slang,” I don’t feel the need to correct you. 1) it’s not my job and 2) it’s your style. The same goes for my writing on social networks–I’m writing for me, not for my employer.

Like most people, I write the way I speak, unless I’m writing for someone else. When I’m writing for the company that I work for, it’s important that it be written correctly for the audience, which in my case is the computer/IT crowd. That’s not to say that a non-computer/IT audience wouldn’t understand the writing. It’s also important, as I said earlier, to be clear and concise.

The “average” American adult reads at the 7th or 8th-grade level. That’s pretty sad, but remember that it is an average. Some people don’t read as well, and others read at a higher level. If you’re writing for your English Literature professor, obviously you’re going to use less common/more pompous language than the average American uses/sees every day (e.g., “lacrymose” instead of “weepy’). So writing at the 8th-grade level should be OK for most of your audience. Also keep in mind that, even though I’m writing toward a computer-literate audience, the particular technology that I’m writing about might be new to some of our customers, especially since computer technology changes quite frequently. It’s also quite possible that the IT person you have in mind for your user guide might not have graduated from high school (e.g., got a GED and then went to a technical school or had military training), or maybe English was not his first language. Some things get lost in translation. That’s also why it’s important to pay attention to grammar and sentence structure—easier to translate.

The Plain Language “movement” (for lack of a better word) has been going on since the 90s. I really don’t know why it hasn’t caught on. The idea is very much “techwriter 101″—use clear, plain language that anyone could understand or translate easily. (They do say, however, don’t write for an 8th grade audience if you’re sure your audience is made up of PhD candidates.) President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 on October 13, 2010, but it’s bigger in the UK than in the US. Medical, legal, and other professionals are encouraged to write in plain language so that their constituents know what the heck it is they’re reading. What a concept! I guess we just feel more important when we use “big” words.

Whatever style you’re more comfortable writing in, write that way! And read what you like to read, not what someone else told you that you “should” read. If you want to write in a certain style, read more books in that style. That is, if you want to write user guides, read user guides, technical manuals, and so on. If you want to write like Dave Barry, read Dave Barry. If you want to write like Charlotte Brontë, read Jane Eyre. But don’t read Charlotte Brontë and then try to write user guides that way. You will definitely lose your audience. However, injecting a little Dave Barry into user guides might encourage more people to read them!

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