How To Avoid Too Much Formality in Business Writing

Writing for business can be tricky. Because you must maintain a professional manner, this can often cause some people to become too formal in how they write. Although business writing should be more formal than other casual types of writing, such as emails between friends or social media articles, it still needs to maintain a friendly tone. Unfortunately, many writers, instead of communicating clearly and concisely, get stuck in a string of formalities.

There are many ways to fix and prevent this from happening. Eventually, finding the balance between professional and friendly will become second-nature to you. You can use the tips discussed here for a variety of different business writing formats: work emails, internal memos, business announcements, advertisements, client communication, and more.

Use Contractions

Using contractions, such as “you’re” instead of “you are” and “haven’t” instead of “have not,” is a subtle way to introduce¬†a slightly more casual tone to your writing. Use a mix of contractions and expansions (the expanded form of the contraction). If you use too many contractions, it might end up sounding too casual, and if you don’t use enough, you could sound robotic.

You can also selectively use expansions to convey a firmer tone. Take a look at the following sentences:

What happened at the meeting the other day wasn’t appropriate.

What happened at the meeting the other day was not appropriate. 

You’ll notice the first sentence sounds slightly less formal¬†than the second sentence, which takes a more serious tone. Depending on which kind of mood you want to transmit, you can choose whether to use a contraction or not.

Expressions

Don’t be afraid to use phrases or expressions in your writing. This is an effective way to add a more personal flair¬†to your writing.

There are many¬†idioms¬†frequently¬†used in business, such as “learn the ropes,”¬†“back to square one,”¬†“ballpark figure,”¬†“game plan,”¬†“hands are tied,”¬†and “on the same page.”

Adding expressions such as these into your writing will help you sound fluid and natural.

Use Active Voice, Not Passive Voice

There are two types of voice you can use, which influence things like style, tone, and formality. Active voice highlights someone or something doing an action, and passive voice highlights an action indirectly.

Active voice creates more of a personal connection, and passive voice will sound more removed, impersonal, and, therefore, more formal. Observe the following sentences:

We made a decision in regards to the new account. (active)

A decision has been made in regards to the new account. (passive)

Notice how the first sentence sounds more straightforward, and the second sentence sounds weaker. The first sentence tells you who made the decision (“we”), thereby bringing in a more personal element, and the second sentence does not show you who completed the action.

This does not mean you shouldn’t use some passive voice. In fact, it’s common to use the passive voice in scientific observational reports and explanations of mathematics. Generally speaking, you want to use more active voice than passive voice, especially if you don’t want to sound too formal.

Avoid Using Industry Jargon

Most likely, your business uses specialist terms and technical language based on your industry. But if you’re writing something geared towards people outside of your field, they might not understand them.

Try to avoid using these types of highly specialized words unless you know the person you’re writing to will understand. If not, you risk not only sounding overly formal, but you won’t be able to get your message across clearly.

Avoid Overly Advanced Vocabulary

Along the same lines as the industry jargon, try to avoid using too many advanced vocabulary words. You don’t want to write an academic textbook when you need to write a memo. This doesn’t mean you can’t use any GRE-grade words, but be selective in the ones you do use. If you’re using a “big” word to show off, then you probably don’t need to use it in the first place.

For example:

Instead of “superfluous,”¬†use “unnecessary.”

Instead of “omit,” use “leave out.”

Instead of “commence,”¬†use “start” or “begin.”

Instead of “enquire,”¬†use “ask.”

Instead of “endeavor,”¬†use “try.”

Don’t Use 3rd Person Exclusively

In writing, there are three different types of perspectives (or points of view) from which to write.

  • 1st¬†Person uses “I” or “we.”
  • 2nd Person uses “you” (so it sounds like the writer is talking directly to the reader).
  • 3rd Person uses “he,”¬†“she,”¬†“it.” or names.

When you write using 3rd Person, you are removing yourself from the piece of writing; you become only an outside observer, reporting¬†what is happening.¬†It can, therefore, seem impersonal.¬†Many people think it’s too informal to talk directly to the reader using “you,” so instead, they replace it with “one,” thereby keeping everything in 3rd Person.

Take a look at the following sentences:

When filing a report, you must label it first with the proper department.

When filing a report, one must label it first with the proper department. 

By avoiding the use of 2nd Person, the writer in the second sentence comes off as extremely formal and unnecessarily proper.

Relax the Grammar

There is no need to follow every grammar rule in the book. Doing so can often result in writing being perceived as stiff and distant.

For example, many grammar sticklers will tell you that you should¬†never end¬†a sentence with a preposition. (Prepositions are words like “to,”¬†“for,” “in,”¬†“around,”¬†“with,” etc.). However, English speakers break this supposed rule all the time, because if not, the language can sound unnatural.

Take a look at the following sentences:

That is something I had not thought of. (preposition at the end)

That is something of which I had not thought. (no preposition at the end)

As you can see, the first sentence sounds more natural, while the second sentence sounds forced and contrived. Choosing the second one will¬†make you seem like¬†you’re trying too hard to be professional.

Another supposed writing rule is to never start¬†a sentence with “and” or “but.”¬†Though it might be useful to generally follow this so as not to end¬†up with choppy writing, it’s okay to make an exception when¬†necessary.

Wrapping Up

Remember that good business writing is all about achieving the proper balance of friendly and professional. Whether you are writing to represent yourself or on behalf of a company, you want to come across as competent, knowledgeable, and decisive, but not to the point where you sound like a robot.

Infusing your professional writing with a human quality and personal touch is always the best way to go.

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