Monday, November 1, 2010

It's All in *How* You Say it: Thinking About Tone

Today, I talked to my developmental students about making sure that the "tone" of their essays is appropriate. We've already talked how they can look like we're wearing sweatpants to a job interview when they don't adapt their writing according to purpose and audience, but the students needed reminding, especially since this was their first "formal" essay (the first essay was a narrative). I've read drafts and, while their writing has dramatically improved, they are still writing like they talk. 

I talked to them about not using contractions, avoiding using slang or txt language, not swearing. I mention that they really don't need to use the first person when they write essay most of the time; what sounds stronger: "I think this is true" or "This is true and here's why?" Not to mention that it's redundant for them to say "the book that I read"; if it's not in quotation marks, properly referenced, I assume that you have thought it, read it, observed it, etc. It's your name at the top of the paper, isn't it?

I warn against trying to hard to sound "formal" in their writing by using big words, complex sentence structures, or trying to give their essay an over-inflated sense of importance/significance. The worst mistake a student can make it to use a word incorrectly, write sentences that don't make any sense structurally, or make ridiculous statements (real example: "For over 100 years, women have been battling with how they are portrayed on television). Simple, I tell my students, does not equal simplistic. Clarity is  their best friend. 

Finally, I talk to my students about eliminating what I call "punctuation words"; those words that we use when we speak that act like punctuation. Starting sentences with "So," "So then," "Well," "You know," or "I mean." Using "like" or "um" or "uh" as commas (don't laugh, I've seen it in papers). Or ending sentences with "right?"or, once again, "you know?" This is particularly revealing to the students, and the discussion always makes me incredibly uncomfortable because I am now hyperaware of how I use all of these formulations when I lecture. I mean, who of us doesn't, right? 

I try to wait until my developmental students have a good chunk of their papers written before hitting them with this lesson (and requirement to revise). This way, students are not frozen early in the process, focusing more on tone than they are on content. It's rewarding to watch students scrambling through the drafts of their essays as we talk, crossing out words and trying to reformulate sentences as we talk about these issues. It also helps them to see how easy it is to fix later, as well as how big of a difference just ten minutes of relatively minor editing can make.

I wonder a lot about how good we are as academics at adapting our tone. Or how accepting academia is at our attempts at changes in tone. I've written about my own process of adapting my tone and style (scroll down about halfway) and how higher education often frowns upon anything non-academic. People are quick to blame academics, especially in the humanities, for writing in a style that is essentially incomprehensible to a general reader, and thus adding to our increased marginalization (see the recent cuts in language departments and humanities funding in the U.K. as examples). Our audience, as academics, is primarily other academics. Not necessarily because we want it to be, at least not exclusively, but because it has to be in order to get tenure. As academics, we learn quickly what tone we are expected to maintain in our writing. Why are conferences so bad? Because we don't adapt our writing for a spoken presentation. Why bother? The line still appears on your C.V., and it's easier to polish it up for publication, which is what really matters.

If we have our own challenges in adapting our writing, why are we trusted with helping students do the same?

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