Register—The Secret to Good Writing!
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
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
I see many students and young professionals write college admissions essays and cover letters that read 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? You might have questions like:
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, simply speaking, is the context of your piece.
The simplest way to break down register is high (formal) vs. low (informal). But for us, it will actually be more helpful to think about written vs. spoken.
A school essay is 100% on the written side: you can't use slang or first person.
However, the admissions essay should be in a conversational register. Your essay has to feel like something you would say out loud—albeit in an articulate and stylish way.
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 came across many opportunities to discuss my perspective on morality with my peers.
This version still uses formal vocabulary, but in a way that feels more natural to say out loud:
"came across" is a colloquialism
"peers" is a more natural choice than either "cohorts" or "pals"
"perspective" is softer than "conceptions" because it emphasizes that this is your opinion (this is called qualifying, or showing that the information isn't 100% certain)
Profligate is altogether inappropriate for any spoken context.
There are many types of registers: conversational, oratory (speech giving), academic (school), formal, informal, ironic, technical, heroic, mock-heroic, romantic, etc. Even something like sports commentary or a food show on YouTube has its own unique register!
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.
Finally, the Wikipedia article on register is informative if you want more information.