What Is an Academic Writing Tone?
The struggle often happens to determine what an academic writing tone is, and what it is not. Is the academic tone made up of multisyllabic words? Perfect grammar? Really long sentences? Well, yes. But that’s not the complete picture.
It’s understandable that some confusion about academic tone exists. And this is where the instructor is able to step in and make some clarification. Not all writing done for college will be academic – there is plenty of room for informal (i.e. non-academic) writing. But when it comes time for a scholarly piece of work to be composed, like a research paper, it helps to offer some guidelines on what exactly is expected.
1. Course Needs
In my classes, I expect that almost everything written during the class period will be informal. In other words, the pronouns me, myself and I (and you) can be used. In-class writing exercises, writing prompt responses, answers to written questions – these can be in first person because they are informal exercises.
But for formally written research papers – the ones that students complete while they are away from the classroom – demand a different timbre of language. This is where the academic tone is utilized.
2. Academic Tone: Not Personal
What is “academic tone”? I usually define it as writing that does not use “I” “Me” “Myself” or “You.” The academic tone is a professional sound that gives written work a polished feeling. Think of a luxury car advertisement – the announcer doesn’t gush about his own feelings, he just states the facts.
(Will personal pronouns ever appear in an academic piece? Perhaps, but that is largely up to the writer and the dictates of the publication for which he or she is writing.)
For teaching purposes, the academic tone is not emotional and it doesn’t include “I think,” “I feel” or “I believe,” because the work isn’t focused on the writer’s own thoughts. When the student focuses on what she feels/thinks/believes rather than on what she has found from research, the paper, at worst, has very little research and a lot of opinion. At best, it can be focused more on the writer and her perspective, rather than on what the research has revealed.
3. Just the Facts
For that reason, I like to show students ways of including opinions, but in an academic way. First of all, I start out with a list of phrases put together by the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. Their webpage is here. They suggest that, instead of using “I think,” the writer could say “from examining the findings.” Many more suggestions follow.
In essence, the point of academic research writing is to let the sources speak for themselves, rather than having the writer over-explain them. Use plenty of quotes, paraphrases, and summaries, with proper citation of sources – this makes the sources the focus of the paper.
Personal feelings on the topic, whether positive or negative, are demonstrated through the sources the writer has chosen and the facts that the paper emphasizes. The writer takes the role of coordinator and analyst of sources, rather than the source itself.
4. Formal Yet Inclusive
In their zeal for excellence, some students take the exclusion of personal pronouns to an extreme level; they may change their sources’ information to be all formal, as well. While well-intended, this can be problematic.
The quotes that are included should be left as they are written – including the informal language. For example, if we were to correct all of James Whitcomb Riley’s spelling changes in his piece “The Frost is on the Punkin’,” it would lose a great deal of its own integrity. Correcting it would change the meaning of the poem. In the same way, changing the informal language of a source quote will also change its meaning.
To clear up the mystery, in class, I pull up a website that demonstrates formal and informal language used in a smooth manner. The website of the fast food restaurant, Wendy’s, has a terrific biographical section. Here, the writers discuss the founder, Dave Thomas, and his work in the food industry. Written as a timeline, this particular web page has formal language, where they discuss Thomas’s development, followed by a quote from Dave Thomas himself, in an informal tone.
This website demonstrates that, when a quote is being used, the informal language within the quote is safe. Dave can speak for himself, when given a proper introduction to the reader.
While a general website is not usually an example of academic writing, the techniques used therein are useful to study. Students can utilize the same habits in their own writing for academic papers.
5. Usage: the Multi-Faceted Puzzle
In academic writing, especially for freshman or sophomore classes, what usage really boils down to is this: are sentences complete? Is the spelling correct? Does the writing demonstrate a smooth flow that doesn’t jostle between present and past tense verbs?
6. Complete Sentences
Let’s start with some basics. What is a complete sentence? The website skillsyouneed.com defines it in this way: A sentence is a self-contained unit of meaning. I define it further: the sentence needs to have a subject (a noun) and a predicate (a verb). I use the following example:
The sentence “Queen Elizabeth I was born in 1533 to King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn” has all the information needed. It starts an idea and completes it.
On the flip side, “Elizabeth I, 1533” is not a complete sentence. We are left to wonder about what is significant to the name and the date. It means nothing. It is, therefore, not a complete sentence.
Spelling is a battle that every writer must face on his or her own. Can you teach good spelling in one semester? Chances are, you’ll have bigger concepts that need to be emphasized during class time. But you can give some pointers to help students address their own concerns on that front.
The first line of defense is the writer himself/herself. The writer needs to be vigilant about looking for errors and possible homonyms that could slip past ordinary spell check. Spellcheck, however, can be a major asset. The services of a writing consultant or tutor, as well, can be helpful. And, sometimes, the instructor can take a look at the paper ahead of time and circle or highlight a few words that demonstrate confusions. Keep in mind, a spelling slip every so often is not going to raise too many eyebrows, but repetitive mistakes take down the whole academic tone of the paper.
This is where rules are usually brought into play. Can you begin a sentence with “and”? Can the words “amount” and “number” be used interchangeably? What about that old Oxford comma – is it accepted? Will it count to only have one sentence in a paragraph – if it’s a really long sentence? Are contractions, like “don’t” allowed?
To address these concerns, you could choose to lecture about grammar for a number of class periods. Or, you could do something simpler: create a handout.
List the errors that you most want students to avoid. Go for major issues, like “their, there, and they’re” or other big things that you have seen. Include some information about how to properly use the words, or a few handy memory tricks to keep the problematic usage at bay. Hand this page out or post it electronically at the beginning of the semester. When you phrase it as a helpful text to consult rather than a “mistakes” page, it is more approachable, and it encourages students to consider their options.
Academic Tone: Conclusion
Your goal as a writing instructor is to help students achieve a higher level of proficiency. Writing is a practiced skill, like playing chess or playing a musical instrument. Most people haven’t written a 20-page paper when they start college. The writing class is where students get that experience – or at least, the understanding of how to put something like a long research paper together. Ultimately, you want to help students reach their fullest potential. Polishing skills in the field of academic writing is part of that process.
Louisa Danielson, B. A., M. A., teaches English composition at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. Articles by Louisa have appeared in a variety of publications, including Dialogue: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, South Texas English Studies, The Musical Times and several popular publications. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or grading English, Louisa likes to explore classical music.