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.