I’m an editor and moderator at Toasted Cheese, a literary magazine and writing community. Recently, one of our members posted a question that I thought was worth addressing here.
He’d turned in a college paper, and his professor told him he needed to “create more distance from the reader.”
It all comes down, I think, to keeping your intended audience in mind. In my college writing class, I teach my students to adjust their style according to the assignment. In a personal narrative, for example, an informal tone is welcome. In a research paper, however, that same informal tone can work against the writer. Here are a few general tips:
- Reserve first person for informal writing like personal narratives, blogs, editorials and columns, and of course, fiction.
- Avoid addressing the reader (you) and speaking for the reader (we/us), except in informal writing. Both practices run the risk of alienating the reader.
- Avoid contractions and slang. I’ve actually had students who have used curse words and colloquial expressions (“bros before hos”) in papers they’ve turned in to me! Unless it serves a clear purpose, it’s not going to impress anyone.
- Be specific, and don’t include unsubstantiated claims in formal papers. Research papers need evidence and quotations to back up the author’s thesis.
Before you begin any piece of writing, ask yourself three questions: What is my purpose? (What do I hope to accomplish with this piece?) Who is my audience? (Who am I writing this for?) And finally, what is the appropriate tone for the writing I’m doing? (Formal? Informal? Humorous? Serious?) If you can answer those questions, you’ll be well on your way to writing appropriately for your audience.