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“The level of formality you write with should be determined by the expectations of your audience and your purpose.”- The Purdue OWL

Most of us grew up knowing that you didn’t talk to your grandmother the same way you talked to your friends from school. Yes, ma’am?

Now, thanks to the internet, we can talk to anyone however we want. Just check out the comments section of…well, anything that has a comments section.

But should we?

Of course not.

The text you leave in your Amazon reviews is up to you. However, as a writer, you need to be aware of your audience, their expectations, and your purpose in writing.

You need to use the appropriate register.

What Is Register In Writing?

Register is a word we don’t hear very often. It refers to the degree of formality in your writing. Register is not to be confused with tone, or mood, or voice. There are important differences between all four.

  • Voice- As a writer, your voice is the part that shouldn’t change. Much. You’ve probably heard the advice to “find your voice.” This simply means to discover your writing personality. Voice should stay consistent because often, it’s what draws readers to your work. When discussing a topic that’s been covered a million times before, your voice distinguishes your piece from all the rest.
  • Tone– Tone is how you feel about the topic you are writing about. Your tone may be somber, comical, or anything in between. While your voice shouldn’t change, your tone should. Unless you only ever write about funny stuff or sad stuff.
  • Mood– Mood is subjective and doesn’t have much to do with you, as the author, unless you are trying to set a particular type. The mood of a piece is how the reader feels when they read it. Yes, you have control over the mood to a certain extent. Cracking jokes will most likely keep your reader from feeling too serious. You can try to create a mood. But ultimately, it’s what the reader perceives it as.
  • Register– Register is the degree of formality of your writing. With the popularity of casual blogging and online publications, the lines have become a little blurry as far as what the standards are for writers. Print newspapers and magazines still generally abide by specific rules and style guides, but even traditional publications have started to lean more toward speaking with the familiarity of the internet. Academia seems to be the only place immune to this trend.

So if you are deciding on the appropriate register for a piece, what are your options?

Types of Register

There are no exact terms that are consistently used to classify register. But there are four general categories that can be labeled and described.

Lund University does a good job of making a clear distinction between the four, so we will use their terminology and examples.

Familiar (Casual)- What’s up!

Informal– Hi!

Formal- Hello!

Ceremonial– How do you do?

Most writers don’t have to worry about figuring out ceremonial language. It’s most often found in historical documents, certificates and awards, and speeches for events like…ceremonies. Surprise!

Register changes as these aspects change:

  • The more complex your sentences, the more formal the language. (And often the more confusing.)
  • Using contractions? That’s not very formal. Formal language can not abide contractions.
  • Putting in your two cents worth? Not formal. It is clear that academic papers and newspaper journalism are designed to be unbiased. I think that in blogging, it’s not so much.
  • If you are totally like, “whatever” about using colloquialisms in your writing, then the register is informal. Maybe even familiar. If you show concern over keeping them out of your piece, it becomes more formal.
  • Formality increases when you are precise or discipline-specific with your vocabulary. Is the nurse “charting,” or is she “writing stuff down”?

So how do you know which register to choose?

Clear Communication Takeaway

Sometimes your register will be decided for you. Your new client may send you a style guide. You may be writing an academic report which, by default, requires academic language usage. Your newspaper may have a longstanding reputation for using a certain register.

But if you are writing an online article or blog post, the decision may be less clear.

First, if this is for a client, check out their past work. Look at other articles or posts on the site. Don’t veer too far from the register they’ve established.

If the publication or company seems to want a style that’s new and fresh, discuss the options with them first. Before composing an entire piece, send in a sample paragraph on the same subject written in two different registers.

Whether the article is for a client or for yourself, you have to take into consideration the three things I mentioned in the beginning.

Who is your audience?

What are their expectations?

What is your purpose in writing this piece?

If your purpose is to connect and communicate, then meet the expectations and communication styles of your audience. Be polite to grandma. Be familiar with your bestie.

If your purpose is to shock and stir the pot, then go the opposite direction. But I’d ask you to consider whether or not you’re making a genuine effort to communicate, share ideas, and create change.

Want to discover the best writing advice with me? Get my weekly article in your inbox each Wednesday by signing up here. Check out my course offerings here. And follow me on Facebook and Instagram as Annie Beth Donahue and Twitter @anniebdonahue


Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

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