Whether you’ve heard of it before or not, you’re using the concept of “register” in your writing.
Register is the level of formality of a piece of writing: It’s something slightly separate from what we might call tone or style.
You could see it as a sliding scale, from very formal language (e.g. a legal document) down to very informal language (e.g. a text message to a friend).
For instance, compare the following two pieces of text:
“Access to our email services and to some areas of the Site is restricted to users who have registered their details with us. You must not use a false name or email or provide any false information nor impersonate another person when registering for use of the Site and our email services.”
“CONTENT COPYRIGHT WRITERS’ HQ ©. PLEASE DON’T USE OUR STUFF WITHOUT ASKING, BUT DO ASK AND WE’LL PROBABLY SAY YES BECAUSE WE’RE NICE LIKE THAT.”
(From the footer of Writers’ HQ’s website)
The first is in a formal register, with words like “impersonate”; the second is informal, with phrases like “we’re nice like that”. Note that both pieces of text have a similar context — they’re each instructing users what they can and cannot do — but they’re written very differently.
Why register matters
There’s no “right” or “wrong” register — just the right (or wrong!) one for whatever you’re currently writing.
By being aware of register, and of how your choices of words, phrases and sentence structures tie in with register, you can adjust your writing as needed.
The wrong level of formality is jarring for the reader, and may undermine their confidence in your ability to provide what they need.
Imagine, for instance, researching lawyers in your area. You find a website that’s written in very informal, chatty language with lots of swearing. It might potentially be a refreshing change and encourage you to hire the person…but chances are, it’ll put you off! You’re expecting a certain level of formality there.
On the other hand, imagine that you’re posting on Facebook to encourage other writers in your local area to meet up for coffee. If your post is very formally worded, it may sound intimidating or off-putting.
How might you adjust your register for different types of writing?
Blog posts: Most blog readers are used to an informal, friendly, conversational style when they’re reading — though if you run a corporate blog, it may be appropriate to make it slightly more formal.
Emails: Chances are, some of your emails will be more formal than others. If you already know a client fairly well, it may seem a bit distancing or cold to address them very formally (“Dear Mr. Jones…”)
Copy for a client’s website: This could be at almost any level of formality. Look at other websites in their industry, and think about their own corporate style. Some companies are known for being unusually informal and this can work well, but only if it’s what your client wants!
Formal or legal agreements: These will almost certainly be written in formal language (though there’s no reason that can’t be in plain, straightforward English). You may want to use standard templates for these. Invoices could fall into this category.
As a writing exercise, it can be interesting to rework a piece at a different level of formality. For instance, you might draft quite formal copy for a client’s website or blog — but also present them with an example of how it could be more chatty.
What exactly does formal writing involve?
Good formal writing is not unnecessarily convoluted, and while it may use long, Latinate words, it doesn’t use these unnecessarily. (It might, for instance, use a more technical or precise word where appropriate.)
When you’re writing in a formal register, you’ll need to stick fairly rigidly to grammatical rules — for instance, it wouldn’t normally be appropriate to have extremely short paragraphs, or to begin a sentence with “And” or “But”.
In a more informal piece of writing, like a blog post or email, short paragraphs and sentences beginning with conjunctions can work very well to keep up the pace and hold the reader’s interest. You should still avoid embarrassing grammatical mistakes, though: remember, your writing needs to be clear and easy to read.
Don’t use slang terms in formal writing — they’re informal pretty much by definition! — and don’t swear. (The exception here is if you’re quoting someone: Then it’s fine to reproduce the words they used — though depending on where your piece is being published, you may need to asterisk out all or part of any particularly rude words.)
Online, you can find plenty of lists of formal versus informal words. I’d use these with a little bit of caution: Don’t feel that you have to constantly second-guess your word choices, and do be careful not to use big words for the sake of it.
As I mentioned at the start, you’re probably using register without even thinking about it. From childhood, you’ll have adjusted the register of your spoken language to different situations (compare talking with your friends to talking to a teacher, for instance) – and you’re probably adept at shifting between different registers in your writing, too.
Being aware of register, though, can help you become more aware of the word choices you make – and more able to tweak and adjust as appropriate.
As you read different things today – perhaps blog posts, emails from big companies, emails from friends, newspaper articles, text messages – think about the register of each, and how appropriate (or not!) it is for the context.