There is an interesting side effect that comes from being a professional freelance writer. When you write for others, online or offline, you write in a voice that is dictated by the client. Most often, a professional writer is asked to write in one of two voices, either formal or informal.
Formal vs. Informal Voice or Style in Writing
While there are nuances, of course, to any specific implementation of voice, whether formal or not, the main characteristics are the same. Formal voice avoids the use of contractions and any sort of colloquialisms. A formal writing style also dictates a detached, third-person style of writing. Exaggeration and speaking directly to the reader are typically not components of this writing style, either. Think encyclopedia entries or even most magazine articles (news or science magazines, not necessarily personal or entertainment magazines). So far, this article has been written primarily in a more formal voice.
An informal style or voice of writing allows for some more flexibility. Contractions are more acceptable in an informal writing style. Also, the use of the pronoun ‘you’ becomes more acceptable, as does using punctuation for specific purposes such as setting off words 🙂 The addition of smilies, online only, also may be acceptable for writing in an informal voice. An informal style allows for direct communication with the reader as well.
Why Use Informal vs. Formal Writing Styles
Despite the connotation of formal sounding like it might be the more correct writing style, informal writing is perfectly acceptable, and in fact, preferable, in some circumstances. While the authoritative sound of a formal writing voice will be more comforting while reading about serious or important topics, the informal writing voice is more acceptable when writing about personal experiences, of either your or the writers. Medical articles on WebMD, for example, are written formally both to convey potentially serious implications, as well as to prevent inadvertently making a frightened reader feel slighted or belittled. Informal voice is much more common on self-help or do-it-yourself websites where a friendly, “Come on. You can do it,” is appreciated.
Up to this point, this article has been written entirely in the formal writing voice. Notice that while this has been instructive, it sounds like it is coming from a teacher or an authority, not a friend or colleague.
From here, we switch to a more informal voice. Notice how the feel of the article changes. Now you are my friend and colleague. While one of us may know more about something than the other on certain topics, we are now more on the footing of equals overall, versus the sort of, teacher to student relationship we had above.
Keep in mind, formal does not mean sloppy or incorrect. You can’t just go off and start throwing around bad grammar just because the style is informal. You still have to make sure your reader can clearly understand what you are saying. After all, they didn’t come here to get a lesson on street talk.
When I first started writing professionally, I got into the habit of writing everything in a formal style. After all, if folks were going to pay me to write stuff for them, then they must want professional sounding formal writing.
It turns out that isn’t always the case. Weight loss, time management advice, and all sorts of other areas cry out for the friendly voice of an informal writing style.
Informal Writing vs. Your Own Voice
If you’re having a hard time seeing the difference between the formal and informal, let your eyes drift back over the two sections. Notice the contractions and use of the pronouns, you, us, and me in the lower part of the article. This turns the voice into more of something that sounds like how you and I would talk informally while sitting around socially, versus how it might sound if I was talking to you while you sat and I stood behind a podium.
There are also some breaks in formal convention such as the part where I get buy in by asking, “Right?” In addition, there are some less formal elements of speech such as using the word folk. Also, the word, “stuff,” is very difficult to use formally, unless you literally mean overfilling something.
Up until now, whether formal or informal, there has been something about both voices that is common. Neither, is “my” voice. That is, that neither writing formally or informally necessarily exposes me as a writer. Both sections above could have been written by anyone. While my word choice and phrasing is unique to me, you would have to really look to find, “me,” in any of the above. It includes none of my sarcastic humor, nor gives you any idea of what I find important or why.
When it comes to my professional writing, especially the kind of freelance writing where the end product does not include the author’s name, this is a desirable trait. After all, a financial planning company wants you to be thinking about them, not the writing. For this freelance writing blog, a disembodied third-person voice is the right way to showcase that I can write in that style for professional clients.
For other articles here, or on my other websites, the topic can dictate the voice. For example on my dad parenting tips blog, an article about playing with the kids at the park should probably be an informal style, and perhaps even be written in my own voice.
Some topics can go either way. For example, I wrote a quick article when there was a Tylenol recall. A formal voice could sound authoritative, however, there were plenty of news articles around covering that. Instead, I injected some of myself as a father in there, and leaving out the formal details of exactly what the was going on. Notice I talk about rushing to the medicine cabinet and feeling, “warm and fuzzy.” Neither of those items would’ve showed up if I was writing on a freelance assignment from the local newspaper or even a news website. However, in this case, they give the reader a both a sense of me (I care about my kids and was prepared to freak out if necessary) as well as providing a sense of camaraderie with other parents who might be thinking the same thing.
When you write professionally, be sure to develop both formal and informal styles, but don’t forget to develop your own voice as well. When you’re ready, go ahead and develop per project voices. People want confident and knowledgeable people writing about motorcycle racing, while they want compassionate and understanding people writing about life’s difficulties.
When you can write anyway necessary based upon your audience, topic, and client’s wishes, then you are a true professional writer.