When writing in English our style should be semi-formal, not too colloquial and not too formal and elaborate.
It is true that some of our written assignments and exam tasks will be formal: For example, writing a letter of complaint, or a covering letter when applying for a job or writing a newspaper article. We will need specific training in these tasks and will need to learn some polite formulas that are characteristic of them, together with some general rules that are typically used in formal written communication like no contractions, no phrasal verbs if possible and so on.
Similarly we may be asked to write something like an email to a friend, where more colloquial language is expected. Unless our level of English is quite high, we will not know many colloquial expressions, but we must be aware of this and try to avoid colloquial language as much as possible, however much or little we know.
When we write is also important that we move away from writing the way we speak. When we speak, sentences are usually short and simple, there are some elements in the sentence that are omitted (ellipsis), we don’t usually use much vocabulary or complex structures.
A semi-formal style, on the other hand, is more thoughtful, more complex, better organized and uses a wider range of vocabulary and structures.
There are also some other things we should avoid:
Never underline word(s) for emphasis or write them in CAPITALS or use rows of dots (…………) and lots of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!! We have to make our emphasis in some other way: We have to explain ourselves with words and be explicit.
Sloppy means careless, so sloppy wording means that we choose our words carelessly, without thinking.
- We must try not to write in circles and repeat the same information all the time without really developing the topic.
- We must try not to contradict ourselves.
- We must try to avoid empty words like people, things, etc (by the way, instead of etc we’d better use and so on).
It is also very important that we do not translate directly from our own language, least of all idiomatic expressions. If I write I met my half orange at university, very few English speakers will know who I am writing about, unless they know (a lot of) Spanish. But if I write I met my other half... , everybody will know that I’m writing about my partner. Now it’s likely that unless my level of English is quite high I will not know the expression my other half, so the advice here is to stop playing games and write partner or husband/wife.
We should always adapt our ideas to the English we know, and keep asking ourselves: Is this English? Does this sentente/expression sound OK in English? An exam is not the moment to do experiments and take unnecessary risks.
Most of the ideas on this blog post have been taken from Feedback, Cambridge University Press, an excellent writing course for intermediate students.
To read all the posts in this series, simply click on the tag Writing workshop on the right.