Scholarly Voice

Tone refers to the writer's voice in a written work. It is what the reader or hearer might perceive as the writer's attitude, bias, or personality.  Many academic writers mistake a scholarly tone for dull, boring language or a mixture of jargon and multisyllabic, "intelligent-sounding" words.  Academic writing, however, does not need to be complicated nor lacking in style (APA, 2010, section 3.07); instead, it can be both engaging and clear.    Below are some useful guidelines that will help you determine the right tone for your academic work.

Audience

Knowing your audience is the most crucial component of the writing process.  Scientific writing is for an audience of scholars who have a particular interest: original scholarship that matters.  Strive to make your writing sound serious, professional, intelligent, and informed. 

For example, if you are writing an article for a scholarly journal, you will want to ask yourself the following questions:

Do the journals in my field share a common definition of the concepts I am discussing? For instance, if you plan to discuss a certain trend in your field, can you assume that your colleagues will be familiar with that trend and the language you are using to describe it? A quick review of current journals in your field should help you determine the common practice and the best language to use in your work.
Could this term or topic be understood differently by different readers? For instance, buzzwords like at-risk and burnout appear in many Walden papers, often with very different implications and contexts. If you plan to use a term that may have different interpretations, be sure to define it clearly for the purposes of your paper.
Is this an idea that is particularly present in my own environment? Sometimes, writers assume that a reader will be familiar with an idea because it is so prevalent in their own setting. The problem, of course, is that every workplace or region is different, and what may be a pressing issue in one place is not important in another. Rather than using language that suggests a universal trend, use language that explains and examines the idea in its own environment.
Am I assuming that the reader already believes in the importance of this issue? When writers have a passion for solving a certain problem, they often forget to clarify why it is a problem. Remember that while your reader may share some of your knowledge base, he or she might not share your perspective. Any time you find yourself beginning a sentence with "We all know that ___ is a problem," you will want to stop and examine that assumption. Remember to use language that shows you have considered the readers' ideas as well as your own.

Objectivity

Try to present your argument in as objective a way as possible. Avoid judgmental and emotive language, as this often reveals that you are presenting an opinion rather than evidence or a logical argument.   Note, however, that whether a phrase or word is judgmental or emotive often depends on the context.  It is best to avoid phrases like it is right, I believe, or I feel.  Often these types of statements lead the writer into bias, a mistake that academic writing avoids. Remember to back up your arguments with sources and facts in order to give you credibility and a more objective tone.

For example, take a look at this sentence:

 I feel that childhood obesity is unhealthy, and children’s eating habits are not right.

Note the use of I and the judgmental phrase, not right. Try to think of a way to portray the same information without inserting yourself or your opinion. For example, instead of saying I feel, ask yourself, "Is this a fact?" If it is a fact, write it as a statement:

Childhood obesity is unhealthy.

With this statement, you are stating a fact and removing yourself to maintain your authorial distance. Also, rather than saying their eating habits are not right (after all, who is to judge what is right and wrong in eating?), you can use statistics and valid sources to back up your ideas:

Two major causes of childhood obesity are poor nutrition and uneducated food choices (Fredricks, 2010).

Here you are giving information rather than giving a judgment. See APA manual section 3.11 for more guidelines for reducing bias.

Formality

Avoid slang, text-message or SMS spellings, clichés, and contractions.  Phrases like digging sports, wicked cool, maxed out, clear the air, heading south, the cat's out of the bag, thru the roof, hear their spin on it, so to speak, and in the hands of have no place in academic writing.  These casual expressions may be appropriate in personal emails, but they are inappropriate in research papers.  Use standard American English spelling for all words, and if you are not sure if a word is a slang term, look it up in the dictionary.

Take a look at this example. The first paragraph is written in an informal way. The second is revised to keep a formal tone:

Informal:

When I got my students to think science was wicked cool, their test scores went through the roof! When I asked for their spin on their improvement, they just said the test felt like a piece of cake to them after I had implemented the new curriculum changes.

Revised to be more formal:

When I was able to engage my students and get them interested in science, their test scores improved significantly. I asked a few students why they thought the scores had improved, and they admitted that the test seemed much easier because of the new curriculum.
Maintain a formal scholarly voice by avoiding colloquialisms. For more information, read Nathan's blog posts on cliches and slang.

Point of View

Generally, it is best to avoid second person pronouns in scholarly writing because they remove the distance between the reader and the writer.  Instead, try to use first or third person pronouns to enhance clarity.  Most Walden programs and APA (2010, p. 69) allow the appropriate use of first person.

Here are a few examples.

Paragraph using second person:

Fire safety is important for everyone to learn. You have to evaluate if you would be prepared to face an emergency fire situation. In order to be prepared, you must be familiar with the emergency exits as well as the building's fire safety plan.

Paragraph revised to avoid second person:

Fire safety is important for everyone to learn. A resident must evaluate if he or she would be prepared to face an emergency first situation. In order to be prepared, residents must be familiar with the emergency exits as well as the building's fire safety plan.

Inappropriate use of the first person:

I found the sources to all cover the same topic of workplace bullying. I then surveyed 60 people to find out if the same theory applied to my own workplace.

Appropriate use of the first person:

The sources all covered the topic of workplace bullying. I surveyed 60 people to find out if the same theory applied to my own workplace.

Clear and Direct Statements

Students often use complicated, evasive sentences when they are first trying to write with a scholarly voice.  However, according to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, "Devices that are often found in creative writing--for example: setting up ambiguity, inserting the unexpected, omitting the expected, and suddenly shifting the topic, tense, or person--can confuse or disturb readers of scientific prose" (APA; 2010, p. 65). Instead of using wordy descriptions or poetic language, try to make your language clearly understood.

For example, rather than identifying an object as an electronic instrument upon which one types and saves documents, simply use a computer.  Often students use indirect language because they cannot think of the right word.  However, developing a good vocabulary is necessary for scholarly writing.  Diction and precision are also very important to strong scholarly writing. 

Remember--it is your ideas that should be complex, not your sentence structure!

Discipline-Specific Expectations

It is important that you become familiar with the language and writing conventions of your discipline; these determine how you approach your work.  You must also understand the goals of your assignments and those of the course as a whole.  For comprehensive scholarly writing guidelines, take a look at our website.  Following APA's guidelines for scholarly writing will help you to maintain a formal, academic tone.