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IX. Use a Consistent Tone and Style, and Make Sure Your Writing Is Mechanically Competent

Mar 21, 2011 by Caroline Eisner

This blog continues the discussion from the previous week by asking you to match the tone and style of your discipline and field as you write for an advanced academic audience. One of the best ways to understand the tone and style of your discipline is to read articles from a top journal in your discipline. You might even ask your advisor to recommend articles to read that are well written and prove good points. Again, this work needs to happen after you have finished the real and hard work of formulating your ideas into a logical and meaningful argument.

The tone and style of academic writing might at first seem intimidating. Readers want their writers to write clearly and intelligently on matters that they care about. What professors do not want is imitation scholarship—that is, any kind of high language such as using the word, “heretofore,” or steeping your writing in language that mimics the most difficult critics, such as Derrida, Lacan, or Spivak, all of whom are known for extremely overt and complicated use of cultural, psychoanalytic, and critical theories. Whereas their writing is very difficult to understand, the tone of an academic paper must be inviting to your readers. Remember, you are writing to a person who wants you to make your points clearly, concisely, and persuasively. Understand, too, that your readers are not impressed when you have inflated your prose, pumped up your page count, or used terms that you don’t completely understand.

In short, then, good academic writing follows these rules of tone and style:

  • Keep the personal in check. Some writing tasks will invite you to make a personal response to a text. For example, a professor might want you to describe your experience of a text, or to talk about personal experiences that are relevant to the topic at hand. But if you haven’t been invited to make a personal response, then do not digress to write about how you feel.
  • Watch your personal pronouns. Writers often wonder if it is okay to write in the first person, using “I” and “you.” Different disciplines have different rules. Some allow the first person in the first chapter only, maybe in the conclusion, but many do not allow it at all. This is likely because first person point of view, “I,” may make the paper seem too subjective. Likewise, using the pronoun, “you,” directs your writing to a specific reader and invites the reader to read subjectively. Your task is to produce an objective analysis and proof of your argument’s worth. Remember, certain academic disciplines (the sciences, for example) would frown on the use of these pronouns. When in doubt, ask your lead reader.
  • Consider your use of gendered pronouns. When you write, you’ll want to make sure that you don’t do anything to make your readers feel excluded. If you use “he” and “him” all the time, you are excluding women as readers, or writing in a less contemporary style, but generally, and again I recommend asking your most important reader whether to use “he, him, his” or “he/she, him/her, his/hers” or to avoid this set of pronouns as much as possible. Some writers advocate always using “she” instead of “he” as a way to acknowledge a long-standing exclusion of women from texts. Whatever decision you make in the end, be sensitive to its effect on your readers. I recommend asking for guidance.
  • Be aware of discipline-specific differences. Each academic discipline has its own conventions with tone and style. If you need more information about discipline-specific matters, check out a style manual, such as the MLA or APA style sheets, and check out the disciplinary guidelines for what style you should use.
  • Avoid mechanical errors. No matter who your audience is, you must do your absolute best to write an error-free text. Errors in grammar and style slow your reader down and at the worst, may cause your reader to turn your paper back to you unread. Some errors obscure the meaning. Always proofread your text before passing it on to your readers.

The following tips will help you in the final stages of your project, before you hand it off to be assessed:

  • Does the format follow the rules as outlined?
  • Does your paper look as if it has been carefully prepared?
  • Are the paragraphs clear?
  • Is the line spacing appropriate?
  • Do subjects and verbs agree?
  • Have the appropriate verb tenses been used?
  • Check for misspelled words, even if you have spell checked your work through a spell check. Print out your final copy. Read your paper in its entirety out loud to yourself, with a pen in hand, and I bet that you will find errors that your computer did not.
  • Take the time to make sure all your references are correctly formatted according to the correct style manual of your field, college, or university. This includes your footnotes or endnotes, as well as your Works Cited or Bibliography pages.

The advice here is crucial because some readers will get stuck on mechanical and grammatical errors and remember only those when they read, considering your work too sloppy or disorganized, and they will not pay attention to your good ideas. Remember, you don’t want anything to get in the way of holding your readers’ hand as they read, and a misplaced adjective or dangling participle, or a period where there should be a comma, may cause your reader to become exasperated and stop reading. But polish at the end, not as you put your great ideas to work. Don’t let anything stop you from transferring your great ideas onto the page or computer screen.


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