How do I know if my style and tone are appropriate?

In most academic writing, you should aim for a neutral, balanced tone and a straightforward style that is neither too formal nor too informal. However, these guidelines are not true for all assignments, so be sure to ask your teacher for guidance.

A neutral, balanced tone gives your reader confidence that you are not overly biased and that you have fairly considered the subject or issue from all angles before drawing your conclusions. You create this tone not only by avoiding particularly charged language, like “idiot” or “crack head,” but also by showing that you know your subject, did your research if necessary, considered opposing points of view and addressed objections to your points.

Students sometimes think that academic style means using big, obscure words in long, convoluted sentences and page long paragraphs. The cartoon strip Calvin & Hobbes makes fun of this assumption when Calvin says:

I used to hate writing assignments, but now I enjoy them. I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!
-- Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes from Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat by Bill Watterson

In fact, your goal should be just the opposite of what Calvin says here. Rather than trying to build up weak ideas, you should work to strengthen and develop your ideas. Rather than using your writing to bury your ideas in ponderous sentences and epic paragraphs, you should aim to express your ideas as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. This does not mean that you should oversimplify your ideas. On the contrary, you will find that as you work to state your ideas clearly, you must think through them much more carefully than you would otherwise.

For guidance on how to write clearly and concisely see Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style.

Finally, you should also avoid slang (“yea,” “ok,” “sucks”) in academic writing except when you are quoting someone, including dialogue, or writing informally on purpose to address a particular audience. For more informal academic writing assignments, like some discussion board postings and journals, be sure to ask your teacher about the level of formality they expect in your writing.

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