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How Formal Is Your Writing?

When I teach journalistic interviewing skills to my university students, I ask “What’s the appropriate way to dress for an interview?” It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes an astute student replies, “It depends on the situation.” And they’re right.

Similarly, when I ask “How Formal Is Your Writing?” or how formal it should be, there’s no definitive right or wrong answer. It depends on who and what you’re writing for.

There are innumerable possibilities, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll consider formal, semi-formal, and casual writing.

Formal writing includes academic articles and legal documents. It contains longer words and complex sentences, few contractions, and no slang. The grammar is excellent. Formal writing generally uses the third person and may use passive voice.

Semi-formal includes news reports and professional interaction. Documents average about five characters per word and 15 words per sentence, and a reasonable number of contractions are fine. The occasional rule violation, such as an incomplete sentence, may be acceptable. Writers generally use active voice and third person, although passive voice and second person are used in some circumstances.

Casual includes novels and short stories. Just about anything goes. Incomplete sentences, grammar violations, slang, informal words, first, second, or third person, active or passive voice. The language may be less precise than in the other categories. These guidelines apply especially to dialogue.

These categories are not cut-and-dried, of course. Much writing falls in between the classifications or may be a combination.

Here are examples of each, all of them about the same incident:


According to reports from the investigating officer, a white Dodge Ram, driven by a man in his mid-forties, was exceeding the posted speed limit by approximately 20 miles per hour. The vehicle failed to stop for a red traffic control signal at the intersection of Main Street and Ninth Avenue and impacted a dark blue Honda CR-V, driven by a woman in her early 50s, on the passenger’s side front door. The resulting crash ended with both vehicles sustaining heavy damage, leaving them undrivable, and their occupants were taken by ambulance to the hospital with serious injuries.

According to Microsoft Word, the average sentence length in this paragraph is 33 words and it ranks at 16.6 on the **Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.


The investigating officer said a man in his 40s was driving a white Dodge Ram. The driver was speeding and ran a red light at Main Street and Ninth Avenue. The Ram hit a blue Honda CR-V, driven by a woman in her 50s, on the front passenger door. Both drivers were taken by ambulance to the hospital with serious injuries. Their vehicles were totaled.

Word says there are 13 words per sentence and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 6.9.


The cop told me a 50-year-old guy driving a pickup blew through a red light. He t-boned a CR-V at Main and Ninth Avenue. There was a woman in that car and ambulances took them both away. I bet their cars are totaled.

There are an average of 11 words per sentence in this passage and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 3.4.

Note that none of these examples are “wrong” and none are “right.” Again, it depends on the situation. But writers should be aware of the formality of their work. If your writing is too informal for the circumstances you may not be taken seriously. If your writing is too formal when it’s not called for you risk the ultimate disappointment for writers—not being read.

As you see, Microsoft Word is useful in helping to determine the formality level. To access the information on sentence length, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level, and more, click on the “Editor” tab.

By the way, this article is 13.9 words per sentence with a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 9.

** Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is a measure of readability. A number such as “9” would mean a person with a 9th-grade education would be comfortable reading it.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski