Style, Tone, and Voice: Introduction

Because academic writing is fundamentally about addressing and persuading an audience of readers, stylistic choices matter. In other words, good academic writers don’t just think about what to say, they also think hard about how to say it. A shift into vividly figurative language when communicating a key point can make that point stand out and resonate more fully in a reader’s mind. An adjustment in tone from more to less formal can allow a writer to address their readers with more directness and presumed intimacy. These are just two of the many ways in which style can powerfully impact the delivery of content.

Revision strategies in this category focus on three interrelated elements: Style, Tone, and Voice. Style is an umbrella term for the vast array of writing choices that inflect both the form and content of basic statements. This includes, but is not limited to, word choice, sentence structure, sentence length, rhetorical techniques, figuration, and tone. Tone names the attitude with which you speak to your reader. Most commonly, people think of tone in academic writing in terms of the spectrum from formal to informal, but there are examples of many different tones being deployed in academic writing—playful, mocking, strident, conciliatory, beseeching, lamentory, and urgent, among others. Although tone is itself an element of style, we elevate it to named status in this category because navigating tone can be particularly challenging for early career academic writers. In truth, tone is always tricky, from face-to-face exchanges, to text messages, to academic articles. Using a particular tone establishes a presumed relationship between addressor and addressee (formal, friendly, playful, etc.). Sometimes, people don’t like the tone you take with them or mistake your tone for another. Making bolder tonal choices in academic writing can be very powerful, but it can also feel risky, especially for a writer who is not yet established in their field. Voice, finally, is defined as the pattern of stylistic choices that together make a given author’s writing feel distinctive and recognizable. Many writers never develop a clear voice, though the best always do. While graduate students should not expect themselves to develop their mature academic voice right away, attending to matters of voice can still be very important, especially when it comes to the common problem of mimicking the voice of another scholar they admire.

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