Final Papers and You: A question of tone

Ben Hur Rowing

Pictured: An Adjunct


Academic writing is notorious for being dry as a desert. We’ve all felt our eyes glaze over during a particular sentence in an assigned reading. Our pen hangs in the air, paralyzed by indecision. What do we underline? Everything? Nothing? What’s the important information here? Resigned to our defeat, we move on to the next sentence, hoping we haven’t strolled right past something significant.

This is the path that will lead to rereading until you realize that you don’t know dick about what the paper was trying to communicate. Now, imagine for a moment that you are a professor (or, to be truthful, a professor’s lowly squire). You’ve been assigned a whole stack of student papers to grade. In a fate crueler than any Lucifer could design, you must sift through a mound of stilted undergrad academic prose. Visions of banned stimulants dance in your head, then vanish. You begin to think fondly of the good old prehistoric days, when language consisted mostly of pointing, grunting, and screeching. What a world it was, untarnished by the verb “facilitate.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Academic writing doesn’t need to have its mailing address in its own rectum to communicate its points in a clear and articulate fashion. If you’re arguing a point, it can be made in lively and interesting splendor. If you’re analyzing a text, you don’t have to drain the blood from the entire work. There’s room for levity and entertainment.

We must acknowledge, though, that not every paper will be a barrel of laughs. Perhaps your subject matter is very grim, and you don’t trust yourself with dark humor. Perhaps you’re writing a research paper, and there’s not much breathing room for creativity. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices. Still, depending on what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, you just might be able to brighten someone’s day. That said, there are different standards for different assignments.

The Research Paper

You’ve drawn the short straw here, my friend. A research paper, or any sort of similar assignment, is not about you. Any light digressions you make will probably only be distractions for the reader. If your subject matter is incredibly dull, perhaps you can try to throw a few oases of wit into your report, but I can’t recommend it in good conscience. An important caveat to this no-fun-allowed proclamation is if your research and sources contain anything inherently fun, you can play up that angle. In fact, you may have no choice, as the absurdity of your research is vital information to the reader. Hopefully your topic is lively enough to support some refreshing asides.

The Text Analysis

This sort of assignment is particularly common for those of us studying English. I’ll not mince words here; there’s no excuse for a boring analysis. Even if the text is soporific, your work can be electric. Now, depending on the text you’re analyzing, how much you want to play around is up to you. Perhaps levity and fun are not the best instruments with which to write about Heart of Darkness. Then again, perhaps they are. The important thing, in my mind, is to treat your subject matter with respect, and never misrepresent it. A bit of fun isn’t cause for consternation, but don’t let your analysis be dictated by some desire for freshness or novelty. A thorough, well-reasoned piece of writing about literature won’t bore anyone. This isn’t tax law.

The Translation

For those of you whose finals involve translating, tone is largely out of your hands. After all, you’re working on a text that already exists in full, and trying to convey it as accurately as possible in a new language. In this case, work is more about preserving tone than choosing it. If the original author was a bit of a wise-ass, then it’s best to make sure that gets across in your translation. As with the research paper, the seriousness of your writing depends largely on the subject you choose to work on. Translating Catullus and translating Virgil aren’t the same ballgame.

I have frequently had difficulty maintaining a completely serious, academic tone, but I feel that my assignments have not suffered for it. There are no grading scripts to run for final papers, so spare a thought for the reader. Even if you’re not afflicted with my peculiar allergies to seriousness and gravity, I guarantee your prose doesn’t need to be NyQuil in 12 point font. Go forth and conquer with some life in your words.

Image via

Leave a Reply