Tone in essays and term papers

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1. The tone in essays or any other piece of writing can be roughly defined as ‘the author’s attitude to the subject – as manifest in the writing’. In academic essays (unless you have been instructed otherwise) you should adopt a tone which is neutral and objective. Your attitude to the subject should be serious and formal.

2. For instance, too much use of ‘I think that…’ and ‘I feel that…’ has the effect of making an essay too personal and subjective in its tone, as in this example:

‘I think that E.H. Carr is a really brilliant historian, and when I first started reading his book The Bolshevik Revolution I suddenly felt … ‘

3. This approach is also likely to encourage a casual and conversational style, which is inappropriate in a formal essay.

4. Avoid using features such as slang (‘far-out’) contractions (‘can’t’ or ‘they’ll’) and vogue words (‘situation’, ‘ongoing’, ‘fantastic’) which create a tone which is too chatty and casual.

5. Avoid the use of ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ by substituting impersonal expressions such as ‘It seems that…Carr argues that…but there is now increasingly good evidence to show that…’

6. The following example illustrates an inappropriate tone which combines chattiness with writing in note form. It is from a student essay on ‘The Origins of the Industrial Revolution’.

Easy access to raw materials – coal, iron, etc. And cheap labour too (all exploited of course!). Then inland waterways and the building of the ship canal. Lots of good markets overseas as well.

7. These notes should be expanded and expressed as grammatically complete sentences in a manner such as this:

In that part of the North West there was easy access to raw materials such as coal and iron. The sources of labour were also cheap at that time since there was such unchecked exploitation. A system of inland water ways provided good transportation. This was especially true following the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal. In addition, Britain in the nineteenth century had access to (and in some cases a monopoly of) a number of overseas markets.

8. A manner of expression which is direct, simple, and clear is preferable to one which is flamboyant or wordy. Keep your sentences short and to the point. ‘He sent for the doctor’ is more direct than ‘He called into requisition the services of the family physician.’

9. Some people imagine that an ornate or flamboyant manner is necessary in order to create a good impression. This is not true. In fact the opposite is the case. Too many flourishes or a sense or wordiness will weaken your essay. Adopt a plain, straightforward prose style. Remember that academic essays are not exercises in creative writing. You will not give your work a sense of purpose or seriousness simply by adding literary decoration. Even when one is sorely tempted – one should eschew the grandiloquent. [That's a deliberately bad example, by the way!]

10. All this is not a killjoy injunction against writing which is stylistically attractive. If you write fluently and include the occasional well-turned phrase, then your work will be more pleasant to read. If you are in any doubt however — Keep it plain and simple.

© Roy Johnson 2003


Writing skills links

tone in essays Tutorials, guides, and books, on writing skills

Red button Writing skills – a bibliography

Red button Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook


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