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Law School Writing Center

Maintaining Formal/Professional Tone

Personal pronouns that refer directly to yourself as the writer or to your reader generally should be avoided in formal writing. What you believe to be true is implied by your stating the information in your writing project, so writing ‘I think…,” “I will argue…,” or something similar is redundant. Directly addressing your reader as “you” can feel jarring and may create an accusatory tone in some instances.

 

Parenthetical asides generally should be avoided in formal writing, as they create a conversational tone and can distract the reader from the main idea of the sentence in which they appear by interrupting the flow of text. Using a parenthetical aside might indicate that the information should appear in a footnote instead, as long as the information appearing in parentheses is not essential for the reader to understand the main idea presented in the sentence. Alternatively, using a parenthetical aside might indicate that the writer is attempting to squeeze too much important information into one sentence; revising the original sentence to create multiple sentences may be necessary.

 

Varying word choice can make your writing sound more interesting and flow more smoothly, but using different words or phrases to refer to the same thing also can create significant confusion!

 

Block quotations (quotations exceeding forty-nine words) must be indented and single-spaced; generally block quotations should be avoided, as readers may be tempted to jump over them entirely.

 

Sentences that exceed three lines are too long! Look for logical points where excessively long sentences can be broken into multiple, shorter sentences.

 

Paragraphs that exceed one-half to two-thirds of a double-spaced page are too long! Look for logical points where excessively long paragraphs can be broken into multiple, shorter paragraphs. Use transitions to ensure a smooth flow from one paragraph to another.

 

Contractions (can’t, won’t, don’t, shouldn’t, etc.) must be written out in formal writing.

 

It rarely - if ever - should be used. Search your document and replace it with a clearer term.

 

Headings and sub-headings should be formatted consistently. They serve as guideposts to the reader as the reader travels through your writing project, identifying what topic will be covered in each section and sub-section and how each section or sub-section fits into the writing project as a whole.

 

Abbreviated terms must be used consistently. Names of organizations and statutes often can be quite lengthy, so shortening these names to save space and improve the flow of your text makes sense. However, abbreviated terms should help the reader avoid confusion, not add to the reader’s confusion! Define your term by writing out the name in full the first time the name appears in your writing project, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses; using quotation marks within the parentheses generally is not necessary. Then use the abbreviation every time you mention the term throughout the remainder of your writing project.

 

Transitions help the reader identify the relationships between ideas, such as chronology, similarity/contrast, and cause/effect. Without transitions, the reader may not be able to determine how ideas fit together, and the reader might reach an erroneous conclusion regarding the relationship between ideas presented in your writing project.