Dear Writing Support Studio,
I have often found myself doubting my use of words and phrases. Additionally, I often spend several minutes pondering whether or not my word choice is truly accurate in terms of the ideas that I am trying to convey to my audience. How can I more quickly determine the right words to use in order to be formal, or in other words, to use the words that my audience would say I should use?
A Curious Student
Dear Curious Student,
Formality is equivalent to meeting the expectations of the genre. It requires that the writer is aware of the various components that contribute to it, and it also requires that the writer is able to allow their thoughts to be entirely absorbed into the voice of that particular piece of writing. It is important to note that word choice and formality are not one and the same, but that word choice is a means of achieving formality based on the expectations of the genre. Prior to beginning to write an essay, a student should be aware of the guidelines that have been set forth. Whether or not first-person or second-person pronouns, contractions, or MLA 8 formatting is required should be questions that the student has asked prior to writing the essay. Following these guidelines would be formal, but certain guidelines can change depending on the paper or class.
As we contemplate how to determine whether or not our words are formal, there are set rules and there are malleable rules. An important set rule when it comes to the formality of word choice is that the writer should use the words, phrases, and sentences that convey the point to the reader the most efficiently. For example, if in a descriptive essay my purpose is to evoke an image, then haphazardly using as many descriptive words as possible is a sure way to confuse the audience. Yet, if the student is to begin their essay with knowledge of the expectations and end it with simplicity, clarity, and conciseness, then they will achieve formality. Therefore, proper arrangement of words and phrases, specificity, and avoiding slang and clichés are all set rules for both word choice and formality. So, in the example of a descriptive essay, the clarity of the image being crafted will be a result of the specificity of the words being used, and not an overabundance of descriptive adjectives and adverbs.
The truth of the matter is that finding the right word can be difficult, but as one comes to expand their vocabulary, as well as understand the implied meaning of those words, it will inevitably become easier. For now, we would recommend that you keep writing, consider word choice most deeply during the editing stages of the essay, and consult with others in order to discuss whether or not they derive the same meaning from your word choice as you do. Peer review is an indispensable tool!
The Writing Support Studio