Tone Academic Essay

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As academic writing goes, this is better than some and no worse than most. I don’t know about you, but the writer lost me midway through the first sentence. He or she makes no attempt to engage a real live person who might be reading.

Speaking for a moment as a human being, not as an academic, I would read something like this only if I absolutely had to, and then I wouldn’t be too happy about it. It’s almost as if that person, the reader, doesn’t exist—as if the subject matter is so ponderously significant that it transcends any human interaction.

Now compare the above passage to the following, from Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book The “achievement gap” is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again, and it typically provokes one of two responses. By smoothing out the rough edges of the sentences through liberal use of contractions (generally considered a no-no in academic prose).

The first response is that disadvantaged kids simply don’t have the same ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds. The second, slightly more optimistic conclusion is that, in some ways, our schools are failing poor children: we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching them the skills they need. By not only addressing readers directly but including us in the discussion (“our schools,” “we … By using simple, everyday words when such words carry the desired meaning, while not altogether avoiding longer words (like “phenomenon”) when needed.

Only once have I ever played the “I’m an English professor” card with any of my kids’ teachers.

That was when my middle son, then a high-school sophomore, received an F on a writing assignment that was clearly no worse than a B.

Bos and Vaughn (2002) similarly noted categories that help student learners distinguish between literal and interpretive questions--skills that they titled textually explicit, textually implicit, and scriptually implicit.

I say that I chose this passage “more or less at random” because I was looking specifically for something that would serve as a classic example of academic prose without being too egregious—which this isn’t.

I’m not going to tell you what was said after that, but you can probably imagine. But the incident got me to thinking, once again, about the difference between academic and conversational prose and the irrational bias so many writing teachers have in favor of the former.

After all, I’ve heard some of my college-level colleagues voice similar complaints—that students don’t know how to write academic prose. The fact that they’re students, and that they’re operating in an academic environment, does not make them academics.

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