Formal versus Informal Writing
As a professional editor for the past twenty years, I’m always looking up guidelines in the industry-standard resources—which, for published books, is The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So much of writing is subjective, up to author and publisher preference as well as educated guesswork as to what will be most effective for the target reader. But punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling (“PUGS”) have actual rules that, for the most part, have black-and-white, right-or-wrong answers. That appeals to my analytical left brain. And that’s the main focus of my book Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors.
But CMOS entries occasionally say that a guideline is one way for “formal” writing and another way for “informal” writing. So my analytical left brain goes into overdrive, wondering what constitutes formal versus informal writing. I want a list—two lists, actually, one for each category. CMOS doesn’t include such a list.
I recently entered into a discussion on a writers’ loop where we discussed the spelling of all right. Someone said that alright was an acceptable spelling but that editors didn’t like it for some unjustified reason. Naturally, I had to point out the justifications editors have for not liking it. Mainly, that CMOS and M-W consider alright to be an alternative or substandard spelling. The first spellings listed in dictionaries are considered the more “correct” ones while the secondary spellings are the ones people use even though they’re not technically considered “correct.” While some folks may not have a problem with it, others do. (Okay, mostly editors and English teachers, but we make up a large percentage of book readers.) So if you don’t want a portion of your readers to be taken out of your story or message by a word they considered to be misspelled, you’d be wise to just use the more acceptable spelling, all right. I mean, why not?
Many editors will correct alright in a manuscript because the industry-standard resources advise writers to “never” use that spelling. Well, never … except, perhaps, in “informal writing.”
That loop discussion prompted me to contact the folks at Chicago University Press, the publisher of CMOS, and pose the question of what constitutes “formal” and “informal” writing. They responded very promptly:
The lines are too blurry for definitions; it’s just common sense.
Almost always formal: your dissertation, a grant proposal, a term paper, a legal document, a job application
Almost always informal: a text, a post-it note
Can be anything from extremely informal to extremely formal, depending on how it’s written: a blog post, an email, a newspaper article, a book, a wedding invitation, an advertisement
Your choices in writing determine whether the document is formal or informal.
While I greatly appreciate the personal response from CMOS, their answer still leaves that demarcation vague, in my opinion.
Sure, it’s common sense that a text or Post-it Note is informal and a dissertation or legal document is formal. Extremes are always obvious. And looking at their “informal to formal” gradation … sure, a blog post is more informal than a wedding invitation. But what’s right there in the middle of that list? Articles and books.
So my “choices in writing” determine whether something is formal or informal. Does that mean a theological Bible study is formal but a children’s picture book is informal? Probably. But that still leaves a lot of middle ground. If I want to write my devotional with a friendly, coffee-across-the-table tone, does that make it “informal”? If I want to come across as a professional to the readers of my how-to book, should I follow the guidelines for “formal” writing?
Getting back to the issue that sparked the question … I have seen alright in some novels and novellas—mostly in the romance genre. But I’m still going to flag it if I see it in a manuscript I’m editing. Because it’s going to take me out of the story or message if I see it in a book I’m reading, and I know I’m not the only one.
All right, time for my followers to chime in. I’m not looking for a discussion of alright here—I’ve heard the arguments and am unlikely to change my opinion since it’s based on industry-standard guidelines. My question to you is this: where do you draw the line between “formal” and “informal” writing?