What Are The Characteristics Of A Formal Essay

This page covers the key aspects of formal and informal writing styles. Before deciding which style is appropriate to your message you should read our page: Know your Audience.

You may also find our page: Writing Styles helpful, part of our study skills section, it summarises the main styles of writing that a student may encounter during their studies.

Informal Writing Style

  • Colloquial – Informal writing is similar to a spoken conversation.  Informal writing may include slang, figures of speech, broken syntax, asides and so on.  Informal writing takes a personal tone as if you were speaking directly to your audience (the reader). You can use the first or third person point of view (I and we), and you are likely to address the reader using second person (you and your).

  • Simple – Short sentences are acceptable and sometimes essential to making a point in informal writing. There may be incomplete sentences or ellipsis(…) to make points.

  • Contractions and Abbreviations – Words are likely to be simplified using contractions (for example, I’m, doesn’t, couldn’t, it’s) and abbreviations (e.g. TV, photos) whenever possible.

  • Empathy and Emotion – The author can show empathy towards the reader regarding the complexity of a thought and help them through that complexity. See our page: What is Empathy? for more.

Formal Writing Style

  • Complex – Longer sentences are likely to be more prevalent in formal writing. You need to be as thorough as possible with your approach to each topic when you are using a formal style. Each main point needs to be introduced, elaborated and concluded.

  • Objective – State main points confidently and offer full support arguments. A formal writing style shows a limited range of emotions and avoids emotive punctuation such as exclamation points, ellipsis, etc., unless they are being cited from another source.

  • Full Words – No contractions should be used to simplify words (in other words use "It is" rather than "It's").  Abbreviations must be spelt out in full when first used, the only exceptions being when the acronym is better known than the full name (BBC, ITV or NATO for example).

  • Third Person – Formal writing is not a personal writing style.  The formal writer is disconnected from the topic and does not use the first person point of view (I or we) or second person (you).

When to Use Formal and Informal Writing

A formal writing style is not necessarily “better” than an informal style, rather each style serves a different purpose and care should be taken in choosing which style to use in each case.  

Writing for professional purposes is likely to require the formal style, although individual communications can use the informal style once you are familiar with the recipient.

Note that emails tend to lend themselves to a less formal style than paper-based communications, but you should still avoid the use of "text talk".

If in doubt as to how formal your writing should be, it is usually better to err on the side of caution and be formal rather than informal.

Characteristics of different types of Essay

Note: With all the types of rhetorical strategy mentioned below, we are not talking about essay "types", but about rhetorical styles which writers use for particular purposes. Some essays ask for a more expository than argumentative style, and for particular strategies within those styles. As we shall see later, authentic essays actually require you to use a combination of these styles.

"Exposition" is a rather formal term which really means either "information" or "explanation", modes of communication we might use to write a manual, offer instructions on how things work or  where to find things, or recount what happened during a revolution, etc.
Below we have identified 4 types of expository essay found in university curricula: 

Science-related essays often require background description: of a thing, process or state of affairs - analyzing it into its parts. This can be done chronologically, serially, hierarchically, etc. It is a test of your ability to select and synthesise ‘factual’ information.


This approach is asked for in essay looking for an account of reasons or causes in relation to perceived effects or results. In most Social Science disciplines, you will be asked to draw on theory to support your explanation. Your interpretation demonstrates how well you understand the relevant theories.


This could be fairly descriptive, but illustrations need to be relevant and appropriate, and written with explicit reference to the theoretical point being supported.


This could apply to experimental data, or to an argument or text. It is the process of breaking down something into its component parts, often in order to analyse patterns or categories based on a theoretical position.

Argumentative (mainly)

literally refers to everything that involves debate and possible disagreement, and to opinion as opposed to the uncontested facts of exposition. It means agreeing or disagreeing with a given proposition, either strongly or tentatively.

In more general terms it refers to a more subjective style of writing, where writers engage in defining their terms or interpreting and evaluating the views, evidence or data very clearly from their own perspective or viewpoint.


Essays which expect a strong defining component are common in philosophy, but also feature in Sociology.
A question may look factual- e.g. ‘Do we have free will?’ , but the way to answered it is by careful definition of what is meant by the concept of free will.

In Sociology, in particular, competing definitions often need to be explored at length, particularly in essays on social stratification or social class.

Some essays require you to pass judgement or make an assessment, according to stated criteria. In cases when you could say ‘Well, it depends what you mean by (X) ... ’, it is important that you define theterms by which you apply or explore these criteria. Terms, such as "success" or "effectiveness", are often value-laden.. Basically, you may be asked to judge how good or bad something is, or how far it is true.
E.g.: Evaluate the contribution of political parties to the development of
the movement for democracy in Hong Kong

Note: Interpretation + Evaluation:Critical Review Essays typically combine these processes and styles of writing 

In all argumentative essays, you are expected to
consider all sides of an issue before taking a stand, and then to
argue for the validity of your own position

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