Top tip for tone in academic writing

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Pat Thomson warns us not to “write ‘classy’” in a new blog post. Who are we pretending to be, in our academic writing? How do we help PhD students think about tone and persona?

A supervisor advised me to find a photo of a trusted friend who was not a particular expert in my field (although interested in and sympathetic to it) and stick it at the top of my computer monitor. While writing, I was to address myself to this person, imagine myself explaining things to her. This is also very much in line with Elizabeth Adams St Pierre’s advice to write pedagogically, to bring people along with you and your ideas, rather than lecturing to them, or posturing above them as superior. This can be tricky for students who feel they must convince supervisors and examiners that they have morphed into experts in their fields! However, few examiners will be expert in every single angle of a thesis.

Writing to my friend helped remove an aggressive tone from my voice, helped me to relax and to use less self-aggrandising vocabulary. It also gave a dialogic warmth, energy and immediacy to the writing. So try this tip yourselves and suggest it to your students, if they are coming over all angry, posh, supercilious, timid, boastful, indecisive, bitter, pugilistic…

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Author: Lucinda McKnight

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Deakin University. She has a BA in Fine Arts, Women's Studies and English from the University of Melbourne, an MA (Distinction) in Media, Culture and Communication, from the Institute of Education now at UCL, and a PhD in Education from Deakin University. Her cartoons have appeared in a number of publications, including Farrago and Health Voice. She has exhibited her artwork at Museum Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts.

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