Take that tone

It’s that time of year again: essay marking. My lovely undergraduates at Middlesex University have been beavering away all year on long projects, which I am now tasked to assess. This is the time of year when academics sit together to discuss bloopers, inadvertently hilarious appealing spooling mistales (see what I did there?), plagiarism, and so on. But what got me pondering this time around was tone. What is an appropriate tone for an essay? And what does that tell us about the writer, the lecturers, the marker and the way in which we discuss music at all?

Marking is a peculiarly reflective process. It has become more and more so the longer I have been freelance, because I am constantly working across numerous organisations and audience bases who require different ‘tones’ and styles. On the one hand, I read some of my students’ work and find myself typing, ‘not appropriate for a formal essay’: to use certain slang, for instance, or start referring to Beethoven as ‘Ludwig’. On the other, we are completely used to reading ‘Clara’ rather than Schumann. That’s a problem, and one I endeavour to draw attention to. Referring to women only by the first names is old-fashioned and frankly lazy, but then it is such common practice in the literature to which student authors might refer, it’s unsurprising that they start to do it as a matter of course.

The biggest question that students need to consider – as do essay markers – is: who are you writing this for? (And the major subsidiary: what are you trying to tell us here? What question do you want to have answered, or at least addressed, by the time you reach your conclusion?) The answer ‘the people who decide whether I get a degree or not’ is totally valid. But then, of course, you need to ask more questions of that. What level of knowledge should I assume? How much should I endeavour to explain how I have reached certain conclusions? How much evidence do I need to provide for particular statements? And that’s tricky, because of course it’s an artificial construction. I already know most, if not all, of what they’re likely to come up with on certain nineteenth-century topics. But they have to either pretend I don’t, or treat it like a sort of formal legal proceeding in which they are required to prove to me that they are writing this from actual empirical research rather than guesswork.

Generally – and I’m sure I must have written this before somewhere – I tend to encourage students to treat essay writing like a detective story. Evidence must be gathered and assessed, facts and opinions presented in such a way that they will stand up in a court of law. Ludwig and Clara are less likely to get a mention in a trial than Ludwig van Beethoven and Clara Schumann. And that’s all fine… but where it really gets tricky is the dividing line between written and spoken speech styles.

Red pen resting on annotated essay

This blog is, of course, written in an informal and conversational style. I wouldn’t expect you to stick around for a formal essay. I know you don’t mind the fact that I address you (yes you, the one in the back row) directly, or that I, the authorial voice, am also present in this piece. The contractions probably don’t bother you much either. Or the half sentences. I write this piece to be read as if you are listening to me speak.

Essays, of course, don’t work like that. But the models for students are many and varied, and since valid essay sources can be anything from a newspaper article to a blog, CD notes, an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or a biography from the 1930s, it’s hardly surprising that the ‘right’ tone to adopt is a tricky thing to find. I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer to this problem, but a few things that could be helpful:

  • A really basic style guide for essays, which students are taken through when submitting their first long assignment
  • Examples of good writing (and appropriate tone) provided by course tutors
  • Some sort of ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ sheet of the most common mistakes

What this takes, of course, is time: time to research, time to prep, and time to teach that isn’t time spent on the principal course material. But I wonder if it could help us to guide the students, and indeed firm up our own ideas on what is and isn’t acceptable. I’d be most interested in hearing from others with experience in this area. We all learn, after all, when we teach.


  • You are quite right in identifying the ‘problem’ of tone, especially for undergraduates who have not got into the habit of writing academic prose, and who increasingly don’t seem to read very much apart from what they find online. I believe the first year of a UG course should be a ‘foundation’ where they are shown how to do these things as expected, and thereafter need to be able to do it for themselves. I still ‘correct’ misuse of language, spelling, apostrophes, etc in 3rd year work, just to show students that there are ‘expected’ standards for written work. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I do think presentation is important.

  • Pauline Greene

    I absolutely agree with John Bryan’s comments. There are so many writing styles widely available (such as your lovely blogs) online, and students definitely read fewer books, or at least use many other sources of information as well – far more than were widely available when I was a student. I’m sure academic ‘register’ comes from reading the good stuff; it’s hard to generate artificially. I too correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, even in PG work, otherwise we’re sending them out into the world not knowing the difference between it’s and its, and that seems very sad to me. I’m currently in the thick of marking so your topic struck a loud chord. I’ll just proof-read this before clicking the submission button…

  • Christopher Redwood

    A trite point but the reason for writing Clara is to distinguish her from Robert, who is likely to be mentioned in the same essay. I suggest that a lot of the weaknesses you encounter may be attributed to the media, which tries to lighten, if not trivialise, most of their subjects.

    • Katy

      Alas, it’s not so simple. There are actually two problems at stake in what you’ve just given by way of example. The first is that it’s a persistent (and outmoded) practice to refer to women by first name alone, and men by surname alone, thus: Clara and Schumann. Students pick this up from scholarly sources and it’s something I’m keen to combat, because (gasp) women actually had surnames as well, and men had first names. Who’d have thunk it?! I also have students who consistently refer to all performers and composers by their first names, regardless of whether they are male or female – the presentational upshot should be the same, with surnames and first names given.

      • Esperanza

        Great point, Katy! In countries like Spain, where using first names instead of surnames to designate women also happen, we have further creative ways of showing prejudice: women’s names or surnames are preceded by the definite article (La Caballé, but never El Domingo). Not everybody will agree but for me, the tone is clearly pejorative.

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