Tag Archives: audience

Do Write in ‘That’ Tone of Voice: Questions to Ask about Audience and Tone

In a recent post, the Marshall University Writing Center Facebook page asserted that, “Writing transcends the traditional college paper assignment.” At the Writing Center, we mostly deal with the “traditional college paper,” but an awareness of tone and audience is often overlooked during the writing process whether or not the piece is for a class or for personal writing. We often see students that assume the audience is only ever going to be their professor and while that may be true in some cases, by considering a wider audience the quality of information present in an assignment or even a piece of personal writing improves dramatically.

            Who is Reading What You’re Saying?

Considering who is reading your writing may influence how you present information. Is it just a professor? If so, what requirements have they given for the assignment? Is this professor an expert in certain fields that you may discuss? How does the professor feel about informal language (more on that below) in a piece? Is this something you’re going to submit to a contest for a prize or a journal for publication? If so, what are their requirements? Do they have other articles you could reference? Does the contest have a theme? Knowing the answers to these questions can help focus not only the information you provide but also help determine the Tone of how you’re saying what you need to say—whether the assignment is informative, argumentative, an analysis, or even a creative piece.

            How Should You Say It?

Once you have an audience in mind, how to say what you want to with your writing becomes more apparent. Specific formats have individual conventions and requirements—the Modern Language Association (MLA) handbook is different from the American Psychological Association (APA) guide. While this may seem obvious, these considerations have a major impact on tone. For example, the MLA format allows for having yourself (an “I”) in the writing; it’s based in the English department and the conventions of the guide reflect that. It places an emphasis on narrative and authorship and that is reflected in the whole format. By contrast, the APA guide is based in psychology and scientific pursuits; it occludes the author as part of the larger narrative of science and fact-based research. The year, and therefore the relevance, of the article is paramount as it shows where in our understanding of a certain topic the reference falls. Additionally, the style of the citation and the specific assignment will impact the “how” of communicating your thesis or story. In some disciplines—particularly the sciences—a passive tone is preferred in relaying information:

The mixture was heated.


We heated the mixture.

The second sentence is in an active voice—something that is more accepted in creative and academic writing in the humanities. These small differences in tone can make a large difference in the presentation of an idea. Other things that may impact tone are the subject matter itself, whether literary devices like metaphor, simile, or puns are acceptable, whether or not contractions are allowed and other considerations that may or may not be part of the formal assignment sheet.

These considerations will help dictate the overall structure of an assignment or personal writing piece. By being aware of them, you can structure your own voice to the circumstances and write in “that” (the accepted) tone of voice.




Code Switching

While many people have weighed in about “Code switching,” I think it’s important to think about it in terms of student writing. I’m Native American, and I’m also Appalachian. These identities are quite different from each other. While we all have different parts of our identities that make it difficult to reconcile, (I’m sure you feel the same) it’s important to remember that we can write effectively while not losing ourselves at the same time.

Code switching is defined from the dictionary as, “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of conversation.” We can probably all relate to this. In English 101 you must learn to, “apply Standard English usage and have the ability to proofread for surface features such as syntax, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and textual formatting.” I think it’s important to remember that sometimes we don’t all define “Standard English” in the same ways. While we are all writers of some variety (tweets and Facebook posts count too), we must remember that writing is a collaboration of our identities.

We all want our papers to be “perfect,” but we must also remember that we are made up of different identities. A good way to think about this is a paper bag. We can put gum, pens, journals, lipstick, even a golf ball in a paper bag, but at the end of the day, the paper bag is still holding all of those items. We can think of identity in this way. We are all made up of different things inside a paper bag (meaning ourselves), and what we must take away from this is that it might change the way we write and speak.

As writers, it’s important to remember audience. You must be aware of your audience and their identity. If you’re writing for an American audience, you must be aware of cultural norms. If I were writing for a Native American audience, I would have to be aware of cultural norms as well. It’s important to not lose our identity when writing, but to also consider these audiences as people that we want to have a conversation with. While we are all constantly code switching to perform for an audience, from a conversation in the hallway-to having lunch with our friends-to tweeting-to writing academically-we must all be aware of our audience and cater to them.

Writing effectively is not just staying true to yourself and your identity but knowing others’ identities as well and recognizing that we might not all be the same, but we all code switch in different genres of writing and interacting.