Keep Your Writing Voice Informal

The best journalism, business, and academic writing is as eloquent and enjoyable as the best writing in other genres. Unfortunately, most people do not produce the best writing. Most people produce adequate writing. Since you aspire to be a writer, I trust that regardless of the field in which you write, you are striving to be among the best.

If most of your writing has been done in academia, business, or journalism, you may need to work on loosening up your style if you’re now writing for the general market. There, a casual tone is preferred to the formality often found in other realms. You do need to adjust the level of formality based on your personal style and your audience expectation, but generally speaking, modern readers of general-market books are not looking for a highly formal tone.

The voice avoids being too distant, intimate, offensive, or stilted.

informal style
Photo by Mi.Ti. • Fotolia

Among the main reasons that text sounds distant is when the author strains to avoid referring to himself as I or the reader as you. Many people are mistakenly taught this principle, and it may have a place in the most formal contexts. Certainly if your boss tells you not to write white papers in first person, you must obey that instruction. But if you are writing for the general market, there is no reason to avoid it.

Please use contractions. Even in fiction, I sometimes see writers avoiding them, probably because some teacher sometime told them contractions weren’t allowed. When you eliminate contractions, your writing will sound stilted. This can be used to good effect if you do it on purpose, especially in fiction. But in a narrative that’s meant to reflect your natural voice, it sounds phony.

It is possible, in some subject areas, for writing to become too intimate. The primary place we see this happen is when victims of abuse or other crimes go into too much detail about the offenses committed against them. On the one hand, we want readers to understand the magnitude of the crime. On the other hand, we don’t want to give them nightmares. Sometimes it’s better to draw back a little than to plunge the reader too deeply into dark subject matter.

Another place I encountered this problem was with a client writing about overcoming addiction to pornography. We needed to discuss the problem without stirring up the prurient thoughts in a reader trying to forgo such stimulation. This required oblique rather than direct discussion of the material.

What language may be offensive will depend on your readership. Some people have a high tolerance for foul language and will not object, for example, if your wartime memoir is filled with cussing soldiers and sailors. It is understood that the language goes with the territory. But understand that many people will be disturbed if there are too many f-bombs in a book. Consider whether it might be better to refer to the swearing without repeating it: I’d never heard him cuss so long and with such variety.

The same principle applies to ethnic and cultural slurs. An account of the Holocaust may need to contain some ugly words used for Jewish people, people of African descent, people with physical disabilities, and other oppressed groups, but sometimes we can write around them. The key to avoiding offense is remembering that all of these groups are made up of people and therefore treating them with respect.

Stilted writing is usually the product of a new writer’s belief that writing must be “writerly.” That is, they strain for a formality and often a vocabulary that’s beyond them. They try to write like a nineteenth-century orator instead of writing like themselves. This is not only inauthentic, but excessive formality creates a distance between writer and reader. We strive for a closeness to readers, so they will feel as if we are sitting at a coffee shop with them.

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  1. Excellent advice. I often shy away from contractions, particularly in the narrative part of my first person novels. I resolve to be more informal in the future.

    1. It depends on the character. In first person (or deep third), the narrative voice should be the character’s. So if the character uses contractions in speech, then yes, use them in the narrative also.

  2. Does that apply to punctuation as well? I know people often speak in comma-spliced sentences, but I have a hard time writing one, thanks to my very strict tenth-grade English teacher of blessed memory.

    On the other hand, it looks out of place to put a semicolon into a bit of dialogue that is very colloquial.


    1. That’s a good point. I tend to use a period there, to show that the one thought has ended and another begun.

      1. OK, I just now tried a pair of clauses with a period on the first instead of the comma that I envisioned my character would probably put there if she were writing her words instead of speaking them. I’d thought it would slow her down too much, but it was OK. I’m going to try more periods and see how that works for me and my characters. Thanks for responding.

        1. Something else that occurs to me is that an em dash may work in some of those cases if the break between sentence one and sentence two isn’t strong enough for a period. It’s more casual than a semicolon, but not as harsh as a period.

          Ha! Only writers and editors speak of punctuation this way.

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