Considering Audience, Purpose, and Tone
When planning an assignment, it is very important to reflect on the purpose of your writing and the audience (real or simulated) at which your paper is aimed. Carefully considering why you are writing and who you are writing for will have an impact not only on the content of your assignment and the organization of your ideas but also on its tone, that is, the appropriate level of formality or informality your writing requires.
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One difficulty in writing for a course is that it’s hard to think of the reader of our essays as an audience. Our instructor might, in fact, be our sole reader, somebody who will pack a pile of papers into a briefcase or backpack and take them home to read on the kitchen table. This is a very limited audience, indeed, and if we aim our essay at our instructor alone, we severely limit its appeal. Such a narrow focus can also prompt us to write less or skip important logical links because we assume that our expert audience will be able to fill in the gaps and understand our paper all the same. A much better strategy would be to think of our audience as a community of readers, such as the readership of a small-town newspaper. These readers are interested in what we have to say (but they’re easily distracted) and they expect something that is informative, well written and easy to follow. We don’t know exactly who is going to pick up this newspaper, so we need to be on our best behaviour: our tone must aim toward being helpful without being overly casual (and never slangy). If we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we’ve hit it just right.
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Beyond that feeling that there is an audience out there, waiting breathlessly for this paper you’re working on, it also helps to have a clear sense of what you’re trying to do for this audience. Are you trying to entertain them? Is your paper a matter of self-expression? Do you have opinions or feelings that you need to share with others? Are you trying to persuade others that you have a view of things that is clear-sighted, useful, and needs to be shared? Or that someone else’s position is faulty or otherwise wrong? Are you trying to provide an exposition of facts or process or definition that others can take advantage of, or are you trying to persuade them of the rightness of a moral or ethical position? The objectivity, mood, and earnestness of your prose will be determined by this attitude or sense of purpose.
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Our behavior while attending church is different from our behavior while hanging out in the back yard with friends. Part of that difference is the difference in language, a difference not just in the words we use but in what we call tone. Just as the pitch and volume of one’s voice carry a difference in tone from street to church, the choice of words and the way we put our sentences together convey a sense of tone in our writing. The tone, in turn, conveys our attitude toward our audience and our subject matter. Are we being frivolous or serious, casual or formal? The choice of a single word can change the tone of a paragraph. In the first sentence of this paragraph, for example, the phrasal verb hanging out is considerably more casual than others verbs we might have chosen (gathering, congregating, assembling) to reinforce the difference between the informality of an afternoon spent with friends and the formality of attending a church service.
Another measure of the formality of our language is our use of contractions. The paragraph on audience has several verb contractions: it’s, they’re, don’t, and we’ve. We use contractions all the time in casual conversation, and using contractions in our text will convey an informal quality. To elevate the style, eliminate the contractions and write out the verbs: “if we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we have hit it just right.” It is a very easy matter to do a search for apostrophes in our text, and it is a very useful exercise. First, we can check for any possessives we may have formed incorrectly, but then we can also check for contractions. There is nothing inherently wrong with contracted verbs; however, they are one hallmark of informality, and your instructor may object to their use.
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Informal vs. Formal Writing
|Uses contractions (can’t, they’re)||Avoids contractions (cannot, they are)|
|Uses abbreviated words (TV, info, lab)||Avoids abbreviated words (television, information, laboratory)|
|Uses phrasal verbs (to go up, to back up, to find out)||Avoids phrasal verbs (to increase, to support, to discover)|
|Uses colloquialism and slang (guy, gonna, for sure)||Avoids colloquialism and slang (man, going to, definitely)|
|Addresses the reader in the second person (you)||Addresses the reader in the third person (one, the reader) or uses the passive voice|
|Uses shorter, simpler sentences||Uses longer, more complex sentences|
To understand better the difference between formal and informal writing styles, imagine the following situation: you have trouble getting started on a paper and you decide to email your professor to ask for help. Since your relationship with your professor is formal, your email should be as professional (coherent, concise, courteous) as possible. For example:
Hello Dr. Richardson,
My name is Camille Lapierre. I attend your Introduction to Economics class Monday and Wednesday mornings. I am writing concerning the mid-term essay due on March 15. After doing some research and brainstorming last week, I have narrowed the topic down to three ideas, but I cannot decide which one is the most relevant to the course. Would you be available to discuss this issue with me tomorrow afternoon at your office hour?
Thank you in advance for your assistance,
Now imagine sending an email on the same topic to one of your close friends. The second email would likely have a more informal (personal, casual, direct) tone and sound a lot like a conversation between the two of you:
I need your help ASAP! I’m stuck with the Intro to ECS assignment. It’s due on Friday and have no clue what to write it on. I’m freaking out! Can I come over tonight to pick your brain for ideas? I’ll bring pizza!
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It’s no secret that the college process can often feel like a numbers game. Depending on your relationship to standardized testing and numbered scores in general, this can be either a curse or a blessing. Regardless, if you’re hoping to apply to college, especially any colleges that accept the Common Application, chances are the college essay looms somewhere in your future.
In the same way that standardized testing might feel different for different people, whether or not the phrase “college essay” causes your stomach to drop from panic will depend upon your relationship and level of comfort with the written word. If you and the written word are already in a healthy long-term relationship, then you’re probably aware that one of the most important aspects of any piece of writing is tone. The right tone can allow your readers to understand you and your message even more—and the wrong tone, of course, can communicate an entirely different message than you might have intended. Luckily, CollegeVine is here to help. For tips and tricks on taking control of your tone in college essays, read on!
What is tone?
Tone is what helps us differentiate between “Yes, it’s totally fine! I understand and I’m not upset at all.” and “Yeah. It’s totally fine. I understand. I’m not upset at all.”
The dictionary defines tone as “style or manner of expression in speaking or writing.” In verbal communication, we can interpret the tone of a conversation based on one’s intonation (the rise and fall of someone’s voice when they speak), body language, as well as other nonverbal cues.
In written communication, however, you obviously aren’t standing face to face with someone interpreting what they say. In lieu of these nonverbal cues, we use things like diction, punctuation, capitalization and sentence structure to add to our message. The context of a given piece is also very important—in this blog post, we’ll mostly be discussing tone in the context of a personal statement to be submitted to college admissions committees, but it is important to note that the different circumstances under which you are writing something will greatly impact the tone of your piece and the way in which it is perceived by your readers.
One of the most important aspects of tone in writing to discuss is the fact that small details can make a huge difference. Think about the example above:
“Yes, it’s totally fine! I understand and I’m not upset and all.”
“Yeah. It’s totally fine. I understand. I’m not upset at all.”
Visually, the two sentences are not all that different, and theoretically, they should be communicating the same message. While the first sentence is straightforward and sincere, the second sentence would likely be interpreted as passive aggressive. Notice the small details that cause the two sentences to communicate two entirely different things.
In considering tone, it might also help you to think about how you would respond to a text from a friend versus how you would respond to an email from your boss. The two would likely be very different because in one case you would be taking a casual tone, and in the other you would hopefully be taking a professional tone.
The Dos & Don’ts of Tone in your College Essay
There is no “perfect tone” for a college essay — given that it should be a reflection of your personality, it will be different for everyone. This being said, there are some tips and tricks that you can follow to make sure that your vibrant personality will shine through in your personal statement.
Keep it real — One of the most important questions to keep in mind when considering tone in your college essay is: Is it true to who I am? Colleges want to get to know you and your personality through your essay. This means that the more unique and real you can make the tone of your college essay, the better. If you love to crack jokes, consider making a few (tasteful) jokes in your essay. If you’re more serious, take a more serious tone. If you’re sarcastic, try to include this (but be sure to be careful with this—run it by a few trusted readers first to make sure there’s absolutely no way that your words will be misinterpreted).
Flex your vocabulary knowledge — Your college essay is a great time to show adcoms your level of comfort with the english language, especially with higher-level vocab words. Watch out for the words in writing that typically fall flat or are overused — “good” can easily become “marvelous, wonderful, memorable, etc.” and “said” can transform into “stated, yelled, remarked, explained…” When it’s appropriate, don’t shy away from using some of the SAT vocab words you’ve likely spent long nights memorizing!
Keep it grammatically correct — Always pay attention to grammar in your essay, even when making choices to benefit your tone. There is nothing worse than trying to be stylistically daring but ending up just making a grammatical error. Short sentences can be a really effective rhetorical tool, for example, but you should never have a sentence without a predicate. Make sure that you understand the proper usages of semicolons, em dashes and colons before you use them in your essay. For help proofreading your essay, you can also check out CollegeVine’s essay editing services.
Be patient and have fun — Don’t be afraid to play around and experiment with the tone of your essay. Almost everyone’s essay will end up going through multiple different iterations and drafts. If something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t be afraid to start over or make whatever adjustments you need. Though it may feel daunting and confusing, ultimately your college essay is an exciting way for adcoms to get to know you and determine if you’ll be a good fit for their school.