Ever been invited to a formal event, such as a party or dance, where the invitation specifically states “formal attire required”?
We all know what formal means in a party invite. It means you can’t show up in your favorite hoodie or yoga pants.
Writing a formal essay is like going to a formal event. You can’t show up with your everyday words. You need to show up ready to impress with your fancy, formal words.
Not sure you have any formal words for the occasion? Let me provide you with some assistance on how to write a formal essay.
How to Write a Formal Essay That Impresses
Throughout your academic career, you’ll be asked to write lots of different types of assignments with lots of different assignment requirements. But you can be certain that most of the time you’ll be writing formal essays, such as argument, compare and contrast, or pros and cons essays.
So change out of your T-shirt and shorts and into your tux or evening gown. Let’s get down to the business of formality and learn how to write a formal essay.
Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do when writing a formal essay.
Tip #1: Know when to use contractions
Contractions are essentially two words joined together with an apostrophe replacing one or more letters.
Here are a few examples:
Need more examples? Check out this list of contractions.
Most of us use contractions in our everyday speech and in informal writing, such as texts, emails, or even some essays. Thus, if you’re writing something informal for a class, you’re probably safe using contractions.
Contractions, however, are too informal for formal essays. Sure they mean the same thing, but they don’t create the tone you’re looking for.
It’s like showing up to that formal dance in jeans. It’s not the same effect.
Tip #2: Write in third person
Point of view in writing consists of first, second, or third person. The tone and formality of your writing will vary greatly depending on which point of view you use.
Here’s a quick run-down of each.
First person: I, we, our
Second person: you, your
- Second person should generally be avoided in all academic essays, though is sometimes acceptable in process essays.
Third person: he, she, it, they
- Third person should be used in all formal essays.
Writing in the third person creates the sense of formality you need to build credibility.
Here’s an example to illustrate:
First person: I think classic movies are better than contemporary movies.
This sentence sounds as if you aren’t quite sure about your stance. It merely presents an opinion.
Third person: Classic movies contain better storylines and acting than contemporary movies.
This statement creates a definitive formal tone that tells readers you know what you’re talking about.
To learn more, read Why Third-Person Writing Is Critical to a Great Essay.
Tip #3: Use formal word choices
It makes sense that you should use formal words in a formal essay, right? So what exactly are formal words?
Formal words are the words you pull out and dust off (like those dress shoes you never wear) to look and sound more professional. Sure, they may seem a little uncomfortable at first, but you get used to them.
Formal word choices are specific and concrete. They offer readers a better description and understanding of your paper.
Take a look at these two examples. Which sentence sounds more formal?
Example #1:Over the last couple years, there’s been a pretty big change in the chemicals put into the river.
This sentence sounds like you’re telling your friend about the river. Words and phrases like “couple years,” “pretty big,” and “put into” don’t exactly scream professional and formal. They aren’t worthy of an academic essay.
Example #2:Since 2015, there has been a 22% increase in the amount of chemical pollutants dumped into the Cook River.
This sentence replaces those basic, nondescript words with more formal word choices to create a professional tone appropriate for an academic essay.
NOTE: Example #2 uses a statistic. Remember, if you’re using information from a source, you’ll need to cite it according to the citation style used in your class. (APA and MLA are two common citation styles.)
Want to learn more about word choice? Read The Ultimate Guide to the Perfect Word Choice for Your Essay.
Tip #4: Don’t overuse the thesaurus
The first three tips have stressed the importance of being formal, so you’d think that using a thesaurus would be a good thing, right? Yes and no.
Using a thesaurus to find just the right word is a smart strategy, but using a thesaurus just to use words you’ve never heard of is generally not a good idea.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you’re writing an observation essay, and you write that all the kids in the classroom were quiet. You feel that “quiet” is not formal enough, so you search for another word and choose “quiescent.”
Okay, how many times have you heard the word “quiescent”? Exactly.
So if you’ve never heard of the word, why add it to your paper just because you think it sounds formal? These types of words will sound out of place in your writing.
Looking for more information about formal word choice? Read How to Become a Better Writer: Don’t Use Words That Sound Smart.
Sometimes a Little Less Formality Is Okay
If you’ve been invited to your cousin’s wedding, maybe it’s okay to wear your favorite red tennis shoes with your suit. Showing up wearing the same suit and tennis shoes to your internship interview at the accounting firm, though, might not be the best idea.
My point is that sometimes it’s okay to be a little less formal, but you’ll need to decide when that’s most appropriate. For instance, if you have to write a timed in-class formal essay, your prof might cut you a little slack on formality.
But now that you know how to write a formal essay, let’s say you’re writing a formal research paper that’s 25% of your final grade, and you’ve had six weeks to complete it. More than likely, formality will be expected.
If you’re still not sure what level of formality you should use, take a look at these example research essays to see what others have written.
Looking for more advice on how to write a formal essay that impresses? Our expert editors at Kibin can help!
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After reading a prompt to one of essays, and then looking at this link, I realized how little I know about the actual meaning of an essay.
Here is how my definition of "essay" has become muddied over the years:
In elementary school, we learned about the simple five-paragraph essay: an introduction (lead, summary, thesis); three body paragraphs (topic sentence, examples and support); and a conclusion (restatement of main ideas). This held on until mid-middle school.
Then, our teachers told us to be a little more loose about our essays: to change the format (but not too much) from the systematic way we were taught earlier. As we started to incorporate meaningful analysis rather than monotonous and boring babbling into our essays, this became more essential.
Now, in high school, "essay" has been totally confused. It can mean:
For an book analysis: still mostly a four to six paragraph introduction, body-paragraph, conclusion format
For personal essays: a looser narrative or impersonal narration of an event
in most other classes:
on tests: a response, anywhere from a third of a page to a whole page (depending on the question and the number of lines provided)
for homework assignments: a page to five page response to an essential question
But now, I have to write a personal essay for an application for a summer program (the prompt is here), and I don't know how to write it. I'm not sure if it should be a creative essay or not (it only mentions "essay").
And now, looking at the link at top, I noticed that there can be multiple meanings to the word "essay." According to it, there are two major forms of essays:
... the essay split into two distinct modalities: one remained informal, personal, intimate, relaxed, conversational, and often humorous; the other, dogmatic, impersonal, systematic, and expository. (Foreword to The Barthes Effect, by Reda Bensmaia, 1987)
The first case is the one I saw in elementary school and early middle school. The second form is the one that began to be advocated at the end of middle school.
But now I'm wondering which would be acceptable when I have to write an "essay". It would be best if you could look at the prompt and tell me which would be best. (I know that the link points to another of my questions, but I said that it should be a "creative essay" when it didn't really say so- and now I'm doubting that it should be.)
On later searching and consideration, I found this link, about the difference between a personal essay (which I have to write) and a narrative. They both focus on story, but a personal narrative more on reflection than the plot like a narrative would. Therefore, this would highlight that it is more informal, like a story. Do you agree with this?