To Go Formal Or Keep It Casual: Choosing the Right Tone for Material

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Sometimes your client is very explicit about the tone of writing that they would like to see used for a particular piece of writing. But equally as often, they are not. Whether it is one of those orders for freelance writing that is light on instructions or one that seems to be giving contradictory directions (“keep it professional but make sure to use a lot of humor”), it can be hard to know the best tone to use for a piece.

While it’s possible to always play it safe, you run the risk of having robotic-sounding writing, devoid of emotion. That last part is key, because it is what tone is truly all about: emotion. People often think that what sets apart a more formal tone from a casual one is a sense of humor or engaging voice, but really it is the degree to which emotions are conveyed. Humor certainly plays a major role, and writers need to use just the right amount of it.

When to Use Humor In Writing

At even the most formal occasions, a joke would not be out of place. From black tie affairs to state dinners, it’s expected that there will be a bit of humor. However, the sort of humor at these kinds of events will be universal. It will always make the safe choice rather than take the edgy risk for laughs. Everyone loves laughing, so it’s ideal to include humor in marketing. And the same goes for B2B pieces. With B2B, it’s vital to strike a tone that inspires professional confidence. It’s also important to remember that the audience will enjoy writing that is engaging. One of the best ways to make your writing engaging is to add a bit of humor.

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Remember that there are times when a joke is inappropriate. In a situation dealing with a crisis or a funeral, a joke would probably not go over well. So, when dealing with grave, serious or sad topics, it’s best to be avoided. In some of these situations, it may be okay to forgo the formality in favor of expressions of emotion, as long as it’s emotion that reflects the seriousness.

Whether to Be Conversational or Formal

There are times when all emotion is best avoided.  Rather than trying to decide what voice is appropriate, I often find it easier to think about how welcome emotion would be to a given situation, and then create a voice from there. When you’re trying to sell something, you want to move your audience, and emotion is well-placed. Generally, in persuasive writing, choosing the right emotions should be the goal, but you must be aware of the types of writing where emotion has no place.

Scientific Writing

While there is a little room for humor in an academic paper, the goal of scientific writing is to persuade the reader by clearly stating the facts. There should only be a reliance on logic, not emotion. This ideal should guide you beyond actual scientific writing when you are writing material similar to case studies.


This one is more surprising for people, as good journalism is engaging.  However, it’s also meant to be unbiased. That means that depending on the media outlet where the article will be appearing, the formality of language can vary. When it is true reporting, the emotion expressed in the piece must be held under good regulation.


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