Tag: tone

Watch Your Tone: The Sound of Academic Writing

Rhea Crone, Consultant

Most of us have received corrections, or suggestions for revision, on papers handed back to us by professors. Some of these comments are straightforward; “awkward word choice,” “incorrect spelling,” or “subject/verb disagreement” come to mind. Some comments, however, aren’t so clear. Among those in the latter camp are the dreaded question marks, free-floating in the margin; nefarious squiggles beneath phrases, sentences, or worse, entire paragraphs; and of course, some of the most loaded comments of them all: those suggesting a revision to “tone.”

DSCN3687So, what exactly does “tone” suggest when written in a margin? Isn’t it a term used to describe the way something sounds? How can a paper sound wrong, and why is any kind of sound significant if the paper’s argument is sufficiently advanced? Moreover, why must academic writers use one tone over another, and for that matter, why must we use any kind of tone, at all? There is no single correct response to any of these questions. In fact, in composition studies—a field that aims to simultaneously promote a sense of authorial ownership in writers of all levels, study the individual styles and needs of writers, and develop the most effective ways to teach everyone to write as effectively as possible—there is a long standing tension between those who say academic writers should not have to adhere to a specific “tone,” at all, and those who say that we must.

One has to wonder if there is a consensus on any aspect of such a debatable, fissured topic. Luckily, a set of general guidelines regarding the term itself exists. These guidelines usually take into account the following, give or take a few preferences or nuances depending on the reader/grader of a paper:

  • Use of clear and direct language, or the “active voice”;
  • Avoidance of personal pronouns, especially “we, you, you all, I,” etc.;
  • Omission of colloquialisms and/or regionally various terms and phrases.

To extrapolate from this short list a bit, academic tone is generally used so that a writer can quickly and effectively get their point(s) across, and so that the reader does not have to overexert themselves trying to understand what the author is saying. Academic tone also typically foregrounds information and argumentation, and demands that prose not sound as if it is merely the expression of an author’s opinion. Overall, this “tone” hinges on the following values: concise communication, and the establishment of authorial credibility. It also assumes that the reader of an academic paper wants to know, first and foremost, what the paper is talking about; and, of course, that the author of the paper knows what they’re talking about. Furthermore, use of the academic tone does not simply assume a certain reading style on behalf of a paper’s audience, but is ultimately an expression of respect for the reader. It does not, for example, ask the reader to believe unsupported claims, spend more of their time than necessary on reading through a paper, or require them to exert more mental energy on working through an argument than is necessary.

Now that we know what academic tone is, and why writers might want to use it, we can better understand the consequences of failing to use it correctly. These consequences don’t always result in a few required revisions or a point deduction. Indeed, academic tone can sometimes be broken with/from to great effect. Practiced, seasoned writers will sometimes switch their tone briefly, in order to emphasize a particular aspect of their argument. For example, placing a casual aside in parentheses, or including a quote from pop culture, can be used to draw attention to, and/or make a bit clearer, an important passage. In order to effectively break with/from academic tone, however, one must first understand and utilize it well. The reason for this is twofold: to borrow an adage, one must first understand a set of rules in order to break them, and the overall tone of a paper must be academic in order for a divergence/variation in that tone to be noticed at all, much less to great effect. If this tone is not broken pointedly, with some kind of rhetorical purpose, the author runs the risk of losing the attention and/or the comprehension of the reader, frustrating the reader, intellectually fatiguing the reader, losing authorial credibility, and/or needlessly obscuring an argument.

No blog post on academic tone would be complete without a disclaimer regarding various academic disciplines. Of course, not every discipline will require that papers be written in/with an academic tone. This is primarily because different disciplines address different audiences, and therefore value and judge tone differently, and sometimes it will not be necessary to write in a strictly formal, academic tone. Further, regardless of discipline, the occasional professor will encourage informal tone at various (more than likely initial) stages of any given writing assignment. Usually, however, it is best to assume that the academic tone is valued and will be expected in/of the majority of your papers.

Ya dig?

For further and/or more specific information on academic tone, please feel free to peruse the following sites:

What is Voice and Where Do You Get It?

Layne Porta, Consultant

I remember being told when I first started doing college level writing that I needed to work on my voice. When I asked my professor what exactly she meant by that, I was told that voice is what makes your writing uniquely your own. I was frustrated and confused: Isn’t the fact that I’m writing it what makes it uniquely my own?

Now that I am a graduate student and writing consultant, I often see the same kinds of feedback on my students’ papers. What I would like to offer here are some thoughts on what voice is and how you get it, as well as some resources that can help you along the way to finding your voice.

What I have come to learn about voice is that it is much more about practical decisions you make in your writing than some mystical quality that appears like mist in the night. The writing process itself is an unending sequence of decisions–from word choice to punctuation to paragraph breaks–and all of these decisions add up to create your voice. For example, I love to use dashes in my writing, which can make my voice sound more conversational. Voice can also come from the kinds of metaphors and similes you choose to explain concepts, or the length of your sentences. I have found that one of the biggest factors in creating (and understanding) your voice is word choice. For example, one of my least favorite words is fickle, but one of my favorite words is capricious. They mean the same thing, but my voice will sound very different depending on that decision. There are many resources that can help in making decisions about the words you want to use. For example, on websites such as visualthesaurus.com and visuwords.com, you can type in a word and it will bring up a word web that will feature synonyms and variations of that word clustered according to connotation. The example below is a screen capture of a visual thesaurus app I recently downloaded:

"Volatile" on Visual Thesaurus
“Volatile” on Visual Thesaurus

I have often heard the idea from both students and peers that voice isn’t as important in academic writing as it is in creative writing. I believe this is a huge misconception. Voice is crucial to academic writing because it plays a large role in engaging your audience, establishing a formal tone, and creating your credibility as a writer. In sum, voice plays a very active role in helping you achieve your rhetorical goals. Furthermore, you can have more fun with the writing you will do during your time in college or after if you embrace your voice as a writer.

If you find yourself wanting to learn more about voice and how to get it, I suggest two very helpful websites that offer comprehensive discussions about voice. The first is “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber, featured on quickanddirtytips.com. This article offers tips on defining your voice as well as some helpful examples of how voice will change according to genre. Another useful article on writingcommons.org by Kyle D. Stedman, is “Making Sure Your Voice is Present” which also offers excellent suggestions for finding your voice as well as some YouTube videos about voice.

layneOne thing to keep in mind is that finding your voice is like everything else in writing–it requires practice. So in response to my initial question as a beginning college student: yes, the fact that I am writing my paper is what makes it uniquely my own. But voice takes this a bit further, and requires that you do some writing to see how your personality comes across. My suggestion, then is to trust your instincts as a writer. Your writing is a reflection of your thoughts and your personality. Your voice, and your awareness of your voice, will come through the more comfortable you get with writing.