Part 2: Chapter 5
Although the audience for writing assignments—your readers—may not appear in person, they play a vital role in the development of your writing. Even in everyday writing activities, you identify your readers’ characteristics, interests, and expectations before making decisions about what you write. In fact, thinking about audience has become so common that you may not even detect the audience-driven decisions. We will spend this chapter focusing on the role the audience plays in your writing by reviewing information presented in the textbook Successful Writing.
For example, you update your status on a social networking site with the awareness of who will digitally follow the post. If you want to brag about a good grade, you may write the post to please family members. If you want to describe a funny moment, you may write with your friends’ senses of humor in mind. Even at work, you send e-mails with an awareness of an unintended receiver who could intercept the message.
Choosing Appropriate, Interesting Content
Content refers to all the written substance within a document. After selecting an audience and a purpose, you must choose what information will make it to the page. Content may consist of examples, statistics, facts, anecdotes, testimonies, and observations, but no matter the type, the information must be appropriate and interesting for the audience and purpose. An essay written for third graders that summarizes the legislative process, for example, would have to contain succinct and simple content.
Content is also shaped by tone. When the tone matches the content, the audience will be more engaged, and you will build a stronger relationship with your readers. Consider the third grade audience mentioned earlier; you would choose simple content that the audience will easily understand, and you would express that content using an enthusiastic tone. The same considerations apply to all audiences and purposes.
As a writer, it is important to know your audience and to consider which content will be appropriate for that audience. Once you have determined these basic steps in your writing process, you can begin to consider how to shape and develop your voice to be academic and appropriate to the discipline in which you are writing. The textbook Boundless Writing introduces great information on developing voice.
You’ve probably heard that one quality found in good writing is voice. Voice refers to elements of the author’s tone, phrasing, and style that are recognizably unique to her or him. Having a distinctive, persuasive voice is crucial to engaging your audience — without it, your paper risks falling flat, no matter how much research you’ve compiled or how well you’ve followed other directions. Yes, academic writing has rules
about format, style, and objectivity that you must follow, but this does not mean you can write boring, impersonal prose. You can — and should — develop an authorial voice no matter what subject you choose to write about.
Saying each writer has a unique voice does not mean that each writer has a radically different style from anyone else. In academic writing, voice comes down to small habits and personal preferences. Think about it this way: if all the students in your class were told to explain a complex concept, none of them would do it in the same way. Each one would use different language and syntax to describe the concept, and as each student makes individual choices in language and syntax over a period of time, their readers will eventually associate those choices with particular writers — their unique writing accumulates to create an authorial voice.
Selecting an Appropriate Tone
Tone identifies a speaker’s attitude toward a subject or another person. You may pick up a person’s tone of voice fairly easily in conversation. A friend who tells you about her weekend may speak excitedly about a fun skiing trip. An instructor who means business may speak in a low, slow voice to emphasize her serious mood. Or, a coworker who needs to let off some steam after a long meeting may crack a sarcastic joke.
Just as speakers transmit emotion through voice, writers can transmit a range of attitudes through writing, from excited and humorous to somber and critical. These emotions create connections among the audience, the author, and the subject, ultimately building a relationship between the audience and the text. To stimulate these connections, writers portray their attitudes and feelings with useful devices, such as sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and formal or informal language. Keep in mind that the writer’s attitude should always appropriately match the audience and the purpose.
Writing with Appropriate Style
Every writer has a distinct style. You should maintain distinctive elements of your voice and style in the academic context. Even when you’re outside your comfortable, everyday environment, you can still find ways to express your unique style. Your writing style, especially your word choice (diction), should reflect the audience you are writing to. Always imagine who your hypothetical audience is (what type of publication would the content of your essay fit into?) and that will help you determine the specifics of your writing style. Academic essays usually require a formal style of writing. That means you should avoid unnecessary informality like first and second person usage, use of slang, and the temptation to write like you are texting, tweeting, emailing, blogging or engaging in any other genre that is typically characterized by a less formal style.
Examples of different voice and style:
Political discussions can often be a cause of tension and controversy, which is why many people prefer to avoid the subject altogether when they’re in social or professional situations. However, engaging in discussions of politics is an essential form of participation in a democracy. This is why civics and political science must be taught in elementary and high schools beginning in the first grade.
Ugh, politics. Whether you love them or hate them, they’re a necessary part of living in a democracy. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” So how do we help people achieve a better understanding of politics and encourage them to talk about differing views? By starting to teach them long before they reach voting age.
Which example has a more formal voice or academic style? Which one would you want to read further? Keep in mind that voice is not something you can automatically create. There are times when you may be tempted to use unusual syntax or fancy vocabulary in the hopes of making your writing stand out, but that would not be your genuine style. There are no quick ways to give yourself a recognizable voice; it is something that can only be developed over time. The best way to develop voice is to keep writing and to think about what kind of writing you like. Pay attention to how you speak — what words you use, what sorts of phrases and sentence structures you favor, even what kind of punctuation appears in your work frequently. These are the choices that will eventually become markers of your authority.
Finding the Most Vivid Terms
Once you’ve decided on the most appropriate voice and style for your document, you will want to continue enhancing your writing to engage your reader. The writing process requires many steps, and in order to ensure you have created a style that meets the needs of both the assignment and your reader, spend some time enhancing your word choices, developing your descriptions, and clarifying your sentence constructions. Here are a few tips to help you enhance your writing style as you continue working to complete your draft.
After you’ve finished writing a draft of your essay, go back and underline all the vague and general terms to see if you can replace them with more precise diction, words that are clear and specific. Especially look out for the “s” word, and no, I do not mean the one that comes to almost everyone’s lips when they look in the rear view mirror and see flashing police lights. I mean “society.” By itself it can mean anything—the entire world, the specific part of the country you live in, the people who make the rules, the counter culture that resists the people who make the rules, to name just a few. If you can specify which “society” you are referring to, you will not only clarify your analysis but also discover new insights concerning the significance of your perspective to a specific group. And also try to avoid all the variations of society that do not provide additional clarity, such as: “in today’s society” or “in today’s modern complex industrial society.”
Consider also looking out for these vague terms and phrases: “The Government.” Try to specify if this term refers to state, local, or federal representatives, the people who vote them in, or to those who are paid through tax dollars, such as public school teachers, policeman, and armed service personnel. Another vague phrase is, “Since the beginning of time.” Try to specify when something actually begins. Personal computers, for instance, have not been around since the beginning of time, as one of my students wrote, but only since the late 1970’s. Avoid broad generalizations like, “All people want to have…” No matter how you finish that sentence, you probably won’t discover something that all people want to have. Again, specify which group of people and why they want to have it. You should also be on the lookout for words like, “stuff,” “things,” or “items,” if you can replace them with more concrete terms like, “scattered papers,” “empty oil cans,” or “half finished plates of food.”
Give the same care and attention to your choice of verbs. You should especially avoid overusing the passive voice, in which the subject of the sentence does not perform the action as in “Tina was asked to go to the prom by Jake.” Usually the active voice sounds more vivid and more compelling, “Jake asked Tina to go to the prom.” And this sentence would be even better if you could replace the verb “asked” with one that gives a more specific account of the action: “Jake begged Tina to go to the Prom.” But don’t feel the need to eliminate the passive voice entirely. Sometimes you may not know who performed the action implied in the sentence, “my car was scratched” or you don’t want to admit responsibility for your own actions, “mistakes were made.” Just make certain that when you use a form of the verb “to be,” you do so for a reason and not in place of a verb that suggests a more vivid account. Ultimately, you want to avoid repetitively using any one verb in your writing. Vary your verb choices to create descriptive and engaging writing.
In advising you to find more precise and compelling words, I do not mean that you should search your thesaurus to find the longest and most complicated terms. Nothing makes students sound like they are trying too hard to impress their teachers than when they use words that appear unnecessarily complicated, dated, or pretentious to make the analysis seem more sophisticated. Though students often think that they impress their teachers by using the most complex term, it usually leaves the opposite impression that you are spending too much time with the thesaurus and not enough with the actual substance of the essay.
Along these lines, avoid the other common trick of adding unnecessary words just to lengthen the essay out to the required number of pages. Instead always look for ways to state your point of view more succinctly. You can do this by using a term that implies several others. For instance, you do not need to write, “Sue is like those people who always put off doing what they are supposed to do until much later than they should have done it in the first place,” when you can simply say, “Sue procrastinates.”
Writing Compelling Sentences
Once your essay has a precise, natural diction, you can jazz it up even further by creating sentence variety. A series of sentences of the same length and type tends to become hypnotic (in fact, hypnotists use rhythmical tones and repetitious phrases to put people into trances). Your essay should “flow” in the sense that the ideas connect to each other, but not in the sense that the style seems like listening to the waves of a lake lapping against the shore at steady intervals. A style that commands attention seems more like a river that changes at every bend. To achieve this effect, try to juxtapose sentences of various lengths and types. If you have a long sentence that is full of subordination and coordination, moving through the complexities of a section of your analysis, then try to follow it up with a short one. Like this.
An excellent way to achieve more variety, provide more coherence, and reduce wordiness is to combine some of your sentences. Take the following series: I wanted some ice cream. There are ice cream shops downtown. I have to drive to get to downtown. I don’t have time to drive downtown. I’ve been putting on weight lately. I decided to eat a carrot. Carrots are healthier than ice cream. Even if these sentences were full of more intriguing observations, we would have to struggle not to fall into a hypnotic trance while reading them. Consider how much more engaging it is to read: I wanted some ice cream. But when I realized I had to drive all the way downtown to buy some, I decided to settle for a carrot instead, a much healthier choice for me anyway. I’ve put on weight lately. The combination of short and long sentences keeps your reader’s attention by jolting them out of a monotonous flow; the elimination of excess words keeps us from having to sort through the clutter; and the coordination and subordination provides a sense of coherence to the previously scattered thoughts.