Part One Overview: The Form of Formal Writing

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Most of the writing that you have done up until now is called informal writing. Informal writing is like talking. It doesn’t have to follow many rules. It just has to make sense. This is how you’ve written almost everything so far, including school papers. Your high school and middle school teachers may have called those papers “essays,” which suggests they were formal papers, but most of the time they were more like conversations. You wrote down the words that you would otherwise have spoken.

The Humble Essay by Roy K. Humble, front cover

Informal writing is great for informal situations — emails, texts, letters written on actual paper to elderly relatives — because in those situations, your ideas don’t matter that much. What matters is the personal connection that your words create between you and your readers. Think about those two-hour phone conversations you used to have with the people who eventually outgrew you. It didn’t matter what you talked about — “You hang up!” “No, you hang up!” What mattered was that you were joined together in those sweet moments that are now somewhat embarrassing memories.

Even when you wrote school papers, what you had to say wasn’t as important as how well you said it. If you had a way with words, your papers were fun for teachers to read, and you got good grades. Meanwhile, if you were among the majority of students who weren’t able to charm their teachers with lovely fluff, then no matter how great your ideas were, you got Cs for your obviously painful efforts. But those days are gone forever, student writer. Over and done with. With college writing, what matters is not a personal connection but having something worthwhile to say.

College writing is called formal writing because it has to have a certain shape or — wait for it — form. That form is defined by all sorts of rules. You have rules about how paragraphs should be structured, rules about how sentences should be shaped and punctuated, rules about how papers should be formatted, rules about how to give credit to others when you borrow their ideas or words. Rules upon rules that define what your formal readers expect from you.

These expectations make it hard to write how you talk because your paper has to be like everyone else’s paper. Your only option is to adopt that prescribed form. Otherwise, you’ll stand out like a doofus. And even if fitting in is painful at first for you former stars of the informal paper, fitting in is still a good thing. It means that anyone can be heard and understood. You don’t have to have a way with words anymore. You just have to follow these rules so that your paper looks like every other formal paper. That uniformity allows your ideas to stand on their own.

This is important in college because your professors are constantly checking to see what’s going on inside your brain. They rely on the rules of formal writing to strip away your charming personality so they can see your ideas. And formal writing is even more important after college. Formal writing is how people communicate in court, government, business, and the rest of the professional world. If you want your ideas to be understood and respected, you have to learn the rules for formal writing and put them into practice. You have to show your formal readers that you know how to play this particular game.

In this first half of this book, we’ll focus on the essay as a thing that you create — a form of writing. We’ll look at the purpose of the essay and how it’s usually different from the purpose of informal writing. We’ll look at formal and informal paragraphs. We’ll spend two chapters looking at sentences, where the rules of formal writing are the most technical and precise.

Take your time with these chapters — especially the more technical ones. If something seems boring, that’s probably because it doesn’t make sense yet. So read it again. If it still doesn’t make sense, then suck it up and ask your professor about it. The more time you invest in learning these rules, the sooner you’ll be able to follow them confidently. The sooner you get comfortable with this form of writing, the more you’ll be able to focus on educating yourself about new topics and developing great ideas.

That’s when the real fun begins.

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