Back in Writing 220, I described my writing style as follows:
To shed some light on why I do write, it is essential to first understand a few things regarding how I write: First, as you may have noticed, I had to bend over backwards to avoid using the second person in that last sentence. Second, I’m cringing so hard that it’s actually becoming painful at the thought of how many contractions I’ve used thus far. And finally, notwithstanding these grave violations of my writing morals, you will never see me stoop so low as to start a sentence with a conjunction or, God-forbid, use a pair of those hideous parentheses (except as a citation).
Ok, while this description was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek at the time, what I find almost as funny is how much my writer’s mind has changed since I wrote it a year and a half ago. What I then regarded–almost with pride–as my defining style, I now acknowledge–almost with regret–as my greatest writer’s vice.
What is this vice, you ask? Kind souls call it “a tendency to be overly formal.” Others, less inclined to euphamisms, call such a style what it is: “stuffy”, “impersonal”, “distant.”
To be sure, formal writing has its place. In fact, much of what I would consider my finest writing is of this style–a term paper on Michelangelo’s famed Last Judgment Sistine Chapel fresco, a literary analysis of “Special Duties” a hilarious short story by Graham Greene, and a lengthly research paper on the Catholic Latin Mass.
Yes, formal writing has its place. I just need to know when to use it. Or better yet, when not to.
Oddly enough, one of the classes that really helped me in this regard was none other than a class on professional writing. Coming into the class last semester, I thought professional writing would fit right within my writer’s comfort zone. As you might imagine, I soon became uncomfortable. More than merely resumes and cover letters, where the writer can hid behind fancy words and job titles, I found that professional writing extended to all the way to personal statements and social media, genres which expose the writer and from which there is no escape. It was then that I learned that “professional” does not mean “formal” as much as it means “appropriate”–appropriate for the given audience and rhetorical situation.
Fast forward to today, and this struggle has by no means disappeared. But one thing has changed with regard to my writer’s vice–I’m at least aware of it.