Register: The Secret to Good Writing!

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Register is more important than tone or diction, and it's not talked about enough in English classes! (By the way, this is closely related to my post on the Two Yous!)

A common mistake

Many students write admissions essays like this:

In my youth, I encountered numerous opportunities to profligate my conceptions of morality with my cohorts.

Most people understand immediately that this is "too fancy," but what does that really mean?

  • Don't you want to be fancy to impress the admissions officers?

  • What makes this version "too" fancy?

  • How fancy can you be?

The answer comes from register!

Register is the implied context of your language.

Let's think about written vs. spoken English.

  • School essay English: sounds 100% written

  • Talking to your friends English: sounds 100% spoken

The admissions essay should be written in a conversational register. It has to feel like something you would say out loud—albeit in an articulate and stylish way.

Your goal is to create the illusion that narrator-you is sitting in the room with the admissions officers, telling them the story in person.

I always recommend reading your admissions essay out loud to see if you feel comfortable speaking the way you wrote.

Let's fix that first example!

When I was younger, I had many opportunities to discuss my (admittedly limited) perspective on morality with my peers.

This version still uses formal vocabulary, but in a way that feels more natural to say out loud:

  • "When I was younger" makes it feel like you're starting a story.

  • the comment in parentheses creates an interruption that makes it feel like you're talking (and also creates a bit of humor and perspective)

  • many words have been changed to more appropriate alternatives for a conversational register

Further Reading

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is a fantastic (and very funny) essay that is written in a conversational register: it feels like she is talking to us—and just happens to be an amazing speaker.

There are many registers besides just spoken vs. written. The Wikipedia article on register is great if you want more information.

– Aaron