This section ought to be read in conjunction with the section on Writing with a Sense of Purpose, as tone and purpose are very much related: one’s tone is defined by why one is writing and vice versa. And part of that difference literary essays the difference in language, a difference not just in the words we use but in what we call tone. Audience One difficulty in writing for a course is that it’s hard to think of the reader of our essays as an audience.
Our instructor might, in fact, be our sole reader, somebody who will pack a pile of papers into a briefcase or backpack and take them home to read on the kitchen table, correcting pen in hand. Or nowadays, he or she may read them online or take home a stack of floppy discs and read the papers on a computer monitor. This is a very limited audience, indeed, and if we aim our essay at that one individual, we have severely limited its appeal. We would be much better off if we could conceive of our essays as being aimed toward a community of readers, the readership, say, of a small-town or neighborhood newspaper.
Contractions One measure of the formality of our language is our use of contractions. We use contractions all the time in casual conversation, of course, and using contractions in our text will convey an informal quality. A pleasant informality may be void of elevated language, but it is not an excuse for imprecision or wordiness. Read the section on writing Concise Sentences and review the various means of pruning unnecessary words and clichés. Here is a paragraph from Mother Jones Magazine from an article which calls upon us to stop using antibiotics haphazardly.
Where would you place this paragraph on a continuum of formality to informality, and why? Media reports have likely made you aware of this problem, but they have neglected the implications. Your brother catches a cold that turns into a sinus infection. His doctor treats him with antibiotics, but the bacteria are resistant to all of them. Septicemia is what killed Muppets creator Jim Henson several years ago.
And here is a paragraph from Atlantic Monthly from an article declaring that the cultural assumptions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment are current at the end of the millennium. Although you have only four sentences to go on, can you say how this paragraph differs from the paragraph above? Governments everywhere are at a loss regarding the best policy for regulating the dwindling forest reserves of the world. Few ethical guidelines have been established from which agreement might be reached, and those are based on an insufficient knowledge of ecology.
Even if adequate scientific knowledge were available, we would have little basis for the long-term valuation of forests. Wilson’s article and there are twenty contractions in Castleman’s, even though Wilson’s article is considerably longer. How do these contractions, or the lack of them, affect your sense of the seriousness of the essays? Visit the web-sites of other well known magazines.