Everyone knows that you should write differently your term papers differently from your Facebook posts, and your journal submissions should be written differently than newspaper columns. What exactly are the differences between casual and academic writing? Between formal and informal writing?
The biggest difference
The single most important difference between casual writing and academic writing is style. That is, casual writing does not require you to adhere to any published style guide. Academic writing, or any formal writing for that matter, requires that you adhere to a style guide. Some schools and teachers will go so far as to specify which style guide to use.
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a manual, or document, that specifies a set of rules and standards, followed by writers to facilitate clear communication. The style guide for EzineArticles.com is a web page that indicates how to write articles to be included in the EzineArticles directory, for instance. Each school and corporation can have its own, personalized style guide.
Main style guides do exist, however.
- The Chicago Manual of Style was one of the first style guides published in the United States. Currently (as of 2010) in its 16th edition, this style guide first came out in 1906. People often refer to "the Chicago style," but people also refer to it as CMS or CMOS.
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is in its sixth edition (as of 2010). This style guide was developed so professors and students could read papers more easily-and so comprehension was increased. APA Style calls for only two fonts in a paper, and the body of the paper must be written in Times New Roman 12 point. Underlining, bolding, and italics are permitted in some places.
- The Elements of Style was written to help people write clearly. While the book has its critics, it is one of the shortest style guides.
- The MLA Style Manual, 3rd edition, is the Modern Language Association's style guide. First published in 1985, this manual is used by many universities, colleges, and students.
- Microsoft wrote The Manual of Style for Technical Publication, and this document is used for internal and external Microsoft documentation.
Common style guide conventions vs. informal writing
Generally, it is okay to use contractions (like it's) in informal writing. Academic writing requires writing out both words.
If you are writing informally to a group of people in your same field, you might use technical terms frequently and never explain them. If you are writing to a group of people that have no relationship with your industry at all, you try to take the technical words out altogether. If you are writing academically, you must explain the term the first time you use it.
This is not different between informal and academic writing. Most often, active sentences are better. Both the APA and the Chicago style guides concur with this.
The grammatical person is the point of view, or you might have heard it phrased as first person, second person, third person, and fourth person. The first person perspective contains a lot of "I" or "we" statements like "I fed the dog." First person is the writer's perspective. The second person is you, the person the writer is writing to. The third person is associated with pronouns such as he, she, it, and they. The third person is not me (the writer) or you (the reader). Sometimes academics use fourth-person sentences like, "One should always behave when one is in public."
Informal and casual writing uses the first, second, and third person point of view, as appropriate. While academics often write in the fourth person, I have yet to find a basis for that style of writing in style guides. Style guides facilitate clear writing and fourth person, one-statements are anything but clear.
The grammatical person needed for a sentence often depends on if the sentence is active or passive.
Academic writing requires citations. If you are state "X is true," you need to cite either where you found that statement. If you created that statement, your words must clearly show that.
Casual writing tends to have short sentences. (Bad casual writing has run-on sentences.) Academic, formal writing uses longer sentences. Take heed though. The goal of any writing is to get a point across, and if your sentence is too long, you will defeat that purpose.
Colloquial expressions and clichés
While "awesome," "da bomb," "the bees knees," "kids," "nose to the grindstone," and "dude" permeate Facebook, these words and phrases are not used in academic writing.
All your friends might know what LOL (and in the case of the ferret community, DOL), but whenever you use an abbreviation in an academic paper, you first need to write it out and connect it to the abbreviation so people know what you are talking about.