When exploring techniques for formal writing in business and correspondence, there are two points that effectively form the building blocks of appearing official, neutral, neat and polite. Essentially, writing in the passive voice and using formal vocabulary. There are times when you can sound too formal, though, when a little human touch is necessary. Hoping to calm down an angry employee or customer, for example, or in building relationships. Using these two key techniques in formal writing, it’s possible to start bending the rules.
Making formal writing neutral
The passive tense is great for removing agency, or responsibility, from writing. This is important for instructions or general announcements, where the subject is less important than the result.
Workers will be paid at the end of the month.
Similarly, formal vocabulary creates an air of technical, unfeeling language – the language of important or unemotional tasks. Even simple statements can demonstrate this difference:
Collect your new pass from reception. versus Pick up your new pass from reception.
Taking responsibility in the active voice
A contrast of active and passive tenses becomes necessary if you want your writing to sound personal, or you want to take responsibility for something.
We will pay you at the end of this week.
But it is an area to exercise caution in. By carefully choosing which parts of a letter to make active, you can take responsibility and seem personal without directly accepting certain responsibilities:
The remaining balance will be paid at the end of the week, we will make sure of it.
In this case the writer insists the action will be complete, while still keeping the actual payment at arms’ length.
This may get into the realms of manipulating your text, and being political with your writing, but minor considerations like this can make all the difference in official documents. It’s a matter of striking the balance between toeing a company line and demonstrating empathy and a willingness to act. When your writing represents you and your company, it’s important to pay attention to exactly what you’re promising, as well as what you’re not.
Softening formal writing
Carefully placed active phrases help personalise formal text and, through offering direct agency, add a human element to the writing. The vocabulary you use will be the most important aspect in really creating formal writing with heart, though.
We’re blessed in English with a vocabulary that contains a formal and informal equivalent for a vast selection of words. Driver vs chauffeur, chat vs discuss and so on. Choosing some of the more informal options in formal writing will make it softer.
A key area to do this, when done with a sensible balance, is in using phrasal verbs instead of formal verbs. Phrasal verbs are generally very informal, even sounding talkative, showing a much more human side to your writing.
Drop off your details in the morning.
Tidy up the report before going home.
These considerations for the formal and informal in your business writing have a delicate balance to tread. Both serve a clear purpose on their own, but combining them is not always so simple. A letter can both command respect and authority and demonstrate empathy and a personal touch with a few key active phrases and informal words, for example, but go too far and you might lose that sense of respect. Or fall into other pitfalls. That said, with that wariness in mind, a little informal language in formal writing can go a long way to letting readers know they are dealing with humans, and being treated as humans.