Tone and Audience

Introduction

You wouldn’t talk to your instructor the way you talk to your friends. In the same way, a piece of writing has to suit its audience. If it does, then it strikes the right tone.

This page teaches how to achieve the proper tone for an academic audience.

Audience

If you’re writing an academic essay, you might think that you’re just writing for your instructor. Yet your intended or implied audience should be much broader.

It’s best to pretend that you’re writing for a general audience that consists of people who are generally educated, but may not have an intimate knowledge of your subject area.

For instance, if you’re writing about a literary text, you can assume that your reader has read the text, but does not grasp the full significance. That’s why you don’t need to give endless plot summaries or provide definitions of common literary terms (e.g., climax, iambic pentameter, protagonist, Romanticism). Your implied reader should have some general competency in your subject area.

The same goes for other disciplines. Try to figure out what counts as common knowledge and build on that. The term behaviorism may not need a definition in psychology, but in a different field some explanation may be appropriate.

Finally, avoid making reference to the course you’re taking or to the directions on the topic sheet. Don’t title your essay “Topic 1” or include phrases such as the following:

As mentioned in class …

The topic I have chosen …

Instead, write as if your essay might be published in an academic journal. Who knows? If your research is original, it might happen.

Tone

Academic essays avoid casual language and aim for a certain degree of formality. You don’t want to sound stiff and boring, but neither do you want to use slang.

Here’s a chart that will help you distinguish some common features of formal and informal writing.

These distinctions are not set in stone. Academic writing can include humorous observations. Popular writing can be perfectly objective. In other words, think of tone as a continuum, and try be conscious of the difference between formal and informal language.

Conclusion

Students often feel that academic writing is a foreign language. It sounds more abstract and has a unique vocabulary. The temptation might be to mimic this perceived level of difficulty in one’s own writing. Resist the urge, though, to sound smart. If you would never say it aloud, don’t write it.

To keep your writing accessible and natural, avoid excessive use of the passive voice, keep your sentences concise, and use clear diction. Above all, don’t rely on a thesaurus.

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