Stylistic and Tonal Differences in Academic Writing

By: Stewart Matzek

Many college students are surprised by academic writing in a university environment, particularly because it is a great deal more taxing than high school writing. This shouldn’t be unexpected – university standards are naturally more difficult – but some students may be even further surprised to learn that even within academic writing itself, there are significant tonal and stylistic distinctions.

These differences can improve any research paper, literature review, or argumentative essay. This post intends to detail a few common academic writing styles, including examples and how to use these styles and tones.

Research Paper

The university research paper is one that often plagues students who haven’t written anything of such magnitude or length.

  • Make sure to use academic language. If you can add field-specific terminology instead of vague description, it can (in moderation) help your paper.
  • Try to use a formal register, and avoid speech that is overly-conversational.
  • Use the active voice. Passive voice can make your paper seem weak.
  • No “I” or “you” unless the professor specifies. Speak about things in terms of the researchers or research in the field.

Tonal example: Though some researchers like Stein (1999) suggest that vaccination is unhealthy and can lead to negative reactions, these statements have nevertheless been disproven in recent years and are now seen as baseless conjecture.

Science Paper/Report

Science papers (particularly in the biological sciences) work quite differently from other academic writing students may have seen.

  • Use academic language. Field-specific terminology is also necessary, especially in documents like lab reports.
  • Avoid personal tone when presenting facts and figures – keep these sections as mechanical as possible (eg. “The slope of the line was X” instead of “We got a slope of X”).
  • In a lot of science writing, passive voice is necessary (eg. “The solution was mixed” instead of “We mixed the solution”).

Tonal example: The bugs were then collected and counted. The first group had fourteen bugs. The second group had six bugs. These numbers were entered into graphs and figures were created.

Literary Analysis

Unlike the previous two papers, a literary analysis (like one a student might see in an English class) uses far more voice and tone in its writing.

  • It is analytical, like the previous two papers, but is instead making an argument for a personal interpretation.
  • Writing can be highly academic, but personal tone doesn’t need to be avoided.
  • Literature-specific terminology is useful for distinguishing your point among others (eg. Words like “juxtaposition”, “ecphrasis”, “metonymy”, etc).

Tonal example: Despite the commonplace that might make one think Hughes was merely lashing out against white patrons of black artists, there nevertheless is an interesting and engaging interpretation if we observe Hughes’ representations of black artists themselves as art in a strange way.

 Argument Paper

By far the most personal of these examples is the argument paper. While these papers do not rely exclusively on personality, they nevertheless represent a student’s opinion in a straightforward way. These are the student’s thoughts and ideas, and the student’s argument.

  • Tone should still remain academic, but using personal pronouns (as is sometimes disparaged in many other academic papers) is for the most part allowable.
  • Strong, decisive statements should be included and are encouraged.
  • Avoid weak language (eg. “This subject is bad” as opposed to “This subject might be bad” or “This subject may be bad”).
  • Many argumentative papers are in the space between formal academic writing and more conversational writing – a mixture of personal and professional tone is preferred.

Tonal example: Based on my own interviews and on research done in the field, mental healthcare in this country must change, because to stay the same is to risk permanently and constantly misdiagnosing patients and affecting their quality of life in a negative way.

When a student understands tone and style, their paper can benefit immensely – not only does it become a better representation of what that style of paper actually is, but it is likely to be a better paper overall. Tone and style can help focus a paper towards a specific audience, and can even help the subject matter appeal to that audience by being appropriate towards them.

You, as a student, can use this to your advantage. Using this framework as a guide can help you achieve a better essay and become a better overall writer.

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