The UVic Writer's Guide

Audience And Tone

Your research is complete; you have a thesis, a complete outline, a bibliography, and a pile of notes. All you have to do is to write the essay. And instead you call a friend or watch television.

The trick is simply to get started. Choose a part of the essay towards the beginning of the outline where you know the material well, and write that paragraph. Then continue. You can backtrack later to fill in the gaps.

There is one important part of the process of writing, however, that you must complete before you set the first word of your first draft on paper: you must decide what audience you are writing for. If you were writing an oral presentation, you would consider your audience and adjust your style accordingly. The same procedure applies to writing. Your audience will influence your choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, and even the kind of evidence you use to support your thesis.

Writing a paper for a university professor obviously requires a greater level of stylistic polish than writing a letter to your six-year-old sister might. However, writing for one professor as opposed to another may require nearly as much variation in method. You would be well advised to keep in mind the preferences of the instructor, as well as the requirements of the essay. Even within the relatively narrow limits of the English essay, there are still a variety of approaches that may be taken and the appropriate path to follow depends to a great extent upon the person who gave the initial directions.

The tone of your essay is dictated in part by the subject matter. If you are writing an article for The National Enquirer you will probably take a more casual approach than if you are contributing to Existentialist Quarterly. An essay need not always be grim and impersonal„it may suit your thesis to be more subjective or ironic. However, while this approach may be appropriate to an essay on double entendre in Shakespeare, it may not serve you well in an essay on the nature of tragedy in King Lear. In a university environment, it is safe to assume that a certain seriousness of tone is necessary, but there are exceptions to every rule. Addressing students in this style manual, we feel freer to be moderately light-hearted than we might if we were speaking to a convention of Scandinavian drama scholars.

What determines tone more than anything else is the kind of language you choose. An honours thesis is a highly formal work; therefore, one would not expect to find it strewn with slang and colloquialisms. The page of this guide which deals with usage explains the difference between formal, informal and popular language.

Another consideration is the attitude you communicate as you express yourself. Be wary of being either too timid or too aggressive. A timid essay hedges on every point, incorporating words and phrases like probably, it seems that, to some extent and perhaps. These phrases have their place, but overusing them suggests that you are not confident in what you are saying. Conversely, an essay featuring numerous examples of obviously, definitely, of course and the like is being overly confident.

Often students fill essays with superlatives and flamboyant emotional outbursts in an effort to please their professors, finishing papers with sentences like "His masterful use of puns proves that Joyce is unquestionably the greatest writer in the English language." Dramatic declarations are not welcome in serious critical essays; what is welcome is carefully considered and well-supported argument. Do not shout at the reader with overstated convictions or pretentious moralizing.

While many essay topics encourage an objective and dispassionate discussion, there are other occasions when it is appropriate to be critical or adversarial toward your subject. Your instructor is unlikely to be satisfied with an essay which merely regurgitates class lectures, or timidly praises to avoid controversy. If you have an opinion, declare it. Students are often afraid to write anything negative, especially if the subject is Shakespeare or another such major figure. Be honest but methodical; support your opinions and never lose sight of the opposing viewpoint.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated May 11, 1995