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