The Ten Commandments of Writing

4. Honor Your Readers with Appropriate Tone and Language

Photo by Kevin Yang on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The fourth commandment of writing follows.

4. Honor Your Readers with Appropriate Tone and Language

Did your high school sponsor dances for students? If so, you probably know that not all dances are the same. Some are simple, informal, Friday-night get-togethers. Others are somewhat special, semiformal parties. Still others are much more special and extremely formal affairs. Writing, generally speaking, falls into the same three categories: informal, semiformal, and formal.

Informal Writing. Informal writing is basically writing without rules. You don’t have to worry too much about tone, language, spelling, grammar, and punctuation because your readers are more concerned with content than they are with correctness. In your personal life, informal writing is the type of writing you use to communicate with family members, friends, and neighbors. For instance, you might take a phone message for your sister, you might write directions to your house for a friend, or you might send an instant message or an e-mail to your significant other. As long as these people can understand your message, they probably won’t worry too much about your tone, your language, your mechanics, or your point of view. Thus, anything goes.

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“An overhead short of a woman writing in a journal at a busy table with a cup of coffee” by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

While most of your college instructors will not want to see informal writing, some may allow it in certain circumstances. For example, some instructors may require you to keep a diary of your actions or a journal of your thoughts. Some instructors may ask you to write your reactions to a piece of literature. Some may even ask you to do some free writing or brainstorming to prepare you for another writing task. In these situations, the instructors are using the informal writing not to judge your ability to write but to get you to think about a topic for discussion or to move you closer to a more formal writing assignment.

Semiformal Writing. Semiformal writing is much more structured than informal writing, and most of your college writing will be semiformal. When you’re writing for college instructors, you need to use a conversational tone, you need to spell your words correctly, you need to use correct punctuation, and you need to follow all grammar rules. This is especially true for all your English courses.

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“person sitting on stack of books while reading” by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

In addition, you should probably be a bit more creative with your language. Most instructors don’t want you to use slang terms, street language, offensive words, or clichés (overused expressions). Instead, you may want to use a thesaurus to expand your vocabulary. For instance, rather than use a simple phrase like “he said,” you may want to use a verb that is much more precise and provides a better description of the speaker’s situation: he whispered, he grunted, he chattered, he argued, or he screamed. You may even want to use similes (comparisons using the words “like” or “as”) and metaphors (direct comparisons) to give your writing more life and vitality.

Formal Writing. Typically, you will use formal writing for your college research papers. When you write a research paper, you must use a more polite tone and proper language, and you must use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. In addition, you must obey certain rules about contractions, names, and point of view.

In formal writing, you can’t use contractions. So, instead of writing the contraction “can’t,” you must use the longer form of those words: “can not.”

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“books on brown wooden shelf” by Susan Yin on Unsplash

Regarding names, you should spell out a person’s full name the first time you use it, and use only the last name in later references. Thus, if you’re writing about Stephen King, after you mention his full name early in the paper, you always refer to him later as “King” and not “Stephen” or “Steve.”

Finally, formal writing requires you to use the third-person point of view. That means you can’t use the first-person pronouns (I, we, me, us, etc.) or the second-person pronouns (you and your). Some students struggle with this rule because they may want to conclude their papers with statements such as “I think abortion is wrong,” or “You should vote in the presidential election.” Fortunately, you can still express the same ideas by using the third-person point of view: “Abortion is wrong,” and “All American citizens should vote in the presidential election.”

Now that you understand the different types of writing, can you tell if this essay is informal, semiformal, or formal? Obviously, this essay can’t be informal because the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct, and the language is proper. But, the essay can’t be formal because it includes contractions, and it’s written in the second-person point of view. Thus, this essay on informal, semiformal, and formal writing is semiformal.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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