When writing an essay, it is important to argue your points in a clear and concise way, and of course to try to sound intelligent as a speaker. Finding the right tone in your written voice is an essential part of writing, yet many students find it difficult to strike the right balance. It is easy to fall into the trap of writing in either too formal or too casual of a tone. Both extremes can make your argument sound ill-researched and weaken the strength of your essay. However, it is easy to avoid these issues, by taking care to use a direct and active tone in your writing.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that will help guide you to find the right voice in your writing and achieve a strong academic tone in your essays.
1. What is the point of an academic paper?
This may sound like a silly question, but many students fail to recognize the main point of essay writing—which is to put forth an argument! Understanding that your essay should make a claim, put forth a new idea or interpretation, or argue a set of points, will ultimately help you to write in a strong academic tone.
If you set out to put forth an argument, and then provide evidence to support it, rather than set out to sound as smart as possible, you will find that your writing sounds clearer. A direct tone and simple language is usually the best route!
2. Avoid writing in an overly formal tone
While this advice might sound counterintuitive, often students mistake formal for academic. You don’t need to make your papers sound like Shakespeare or the most esteemed professor wrote it! When you adopt an overly formal tone in your writing, the result is most often that you sound like you don’t know what you are talking about. Make sure that you use words whose meaning you understand, and sentence structure that makes sense—even if it appears simple.
For example, in a paper on climate change, an overly formal sentence might read:
“The staggering volume of synthetic organic compounds accumulating in large bodies of saline water has engendered a colossal moral quandary for behemoth manufacturers—should they continue the course, or innovate new methods?”
You don’t want to sound like this!
Instead, in clear and direct language, the following sentence means the same thing, but in a more readable way.
“The large volume of plastic waste that has accumulated in the Earth’s oceans has created a moral question for companies that produce large amounts of plastic materials—should they continue to produce plastic? Or phase into producing products that will degrade over time?”
As you can tell, the second sentence is in much plainer English, and sounds far more academic in tone than the first!
3. Avoid colloquialisms
Although it is important to avoid using too formal of a tone in your writing, you also want to be sure that you don’t use colloquialisms—informal words or phrases that are common in spoken English—in your writing. It is easy to avoid slang words, but students often struggle to rid less obvious colloquialisms from their writing.
Most often, these colloquialisms are words or phrases that we use in everyday language when we speak out loud or in informal text conversations. In spoken English and informal text conversations, these phrases are perfectly acceptable. But, you want to avoid them in your writing, because often they are placeholder words and phrases, that merely help to bridge together ideas that draw upon the context of the conversation.
For example, you might text a friend:
“I got tickets to that concert Friday night. You in?”
Here, the word “got” and “you in” are colloquialisms. They make sense in context, but in writing—where you must assume the reader will take what you say literally—it is not clear what you mean by this.
For example, how did you get the tickets? Did you buy them? Did someone give them to you?
While it might sound formal for a text conversation, in an academic tone this sentence would read “I bought tickets to attend that concert Friday night. I can give you a ticket if you want to attend with me.”
To avoid colloquialisms, it is usually a best practice to try to be as specific and direct about what you mean as possible.
4. Don’t use exaggeration or hyperbole
Sometimes when students intend to create emphasis or articulate the importance of a piece of evidence or point in an argument, they rely on exaggeration or hyperbole to try to convince the reader to agree with them. Don’t do this! Most often, hyperbolic phrases make your writing sound corny, and most importantly you must assume that your reader is taking everything you say literally and needs proof of every statement you make.
You might write in your paper on climate change:
“Plastic waste is now clogging the oceans, choking the life out of sea-creatures and threatening to end all ocean-life as we know it!”
This phrase is hyperbolic, and doesn’t actually point to any evidence to support the claim. A better phrased sentence might read:
“According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, humans have dumped more than 8 million tons of plastic into ocean water each year for several years in a row. This plastic waste does not degrade, and clumps together—which creates large blocks in the ocean that hurt ocean-life.”
As you can see, in this sentence the cited facts do the work to emphasize the points, rather than hyperbole.
5. Avoid making generalizations
Another bad habit that students often have a hard time dropping is making generalizations in their essays. Usually, these generalizations come as a way to introduce material, or make an emotional appeal to the reader. It is important to avoid using generalizations in your essays because like hyperbolic phrases they sound corny, they are hard to prove, and often they don’t even really relate to your argument.
For example, in an essay that argues that the passage of the 19th amendment failed to promote equality for all women, because racist Jim Crow laws prevented black women from also voting, you might say:
“On July 4th, 1776 the United States of America was born with the undertaking that all Americans should be created equal. Since then the U.S. has been working hard to achieve this promise and it moved one step closer after it passed the 19th amendment, but not close enough.”
This introduction to the idea of equality reads as corny, and isn’t necessarily specific to the exact topic of the paper.
A better sentence might read:
“Although the passage of the 19th amendment was a significant step for women’s rights in the US, at the time of its passage it did not actually achieve total voting equality for women, as black women were still largely prevented from voting.”
As you can see, this introduction is much more direct, and specific to the topic.
In order to avoid making generalizations in your paper, try to be as specific as possible, and avoid moving too far away from the topic at hand when you lead into your essay.
6. Don’t use personal pronouns or invoke the reader
In academic writing, it is important to maintain an academic distance from your essay. You want to avoid using personal pronouns because it makes your tone sound too personal, and less factual. You also want to avoid using phrases that will invoke the reader, because you cannot be sure of who your reader is.
For example, a professor of Economics might write a paper on how government spending after the 2008 Financial Crisis helped the economy to recover and publish it in a major Economics academic journal, and write:
“In the wake of the 2008 Financial collapse, our nation experienced a crisis which our government addressed first through a stimulus package.”
In this sentence, the phrases “our nation” and “our government” appeal to the reader as being the same as the writer. This is a problem because you cannot assume who your reader will be. In this example, economists from other countries might read this paper.
A better sentence would just replace “our” with “the United States,” to be more specific and more detached from the information.
Many students find it difficult to strike the right tone in their writing. However, that is no reason to fear writing your papers! As you can see from these suggestions, it is easy to cut out simple bad habits and write in an academic tone.