Considering Audience, Purpose, and Tone

When planning an assignment, it is very important to reflect on the purpose of your writing and the audience (real or simulated) at which your paper is aimed. Carefully considering why you are writing and who you are writing for will have an impact not only on the content of your assignment and the organization of your ideas but also on its tone, that is, the appropriate level of formality or informality your writing requires.



One difficulty in writing for a course is that it’s hard to think of the reader of our essays as an audience. Our instructor might, in fact, be our sole reader, somebody who will pack a pile of papers into a briefcase or backpack and take them home to read on the kitchen table. This is a very limited audience, indeed, and if we aim our essay at our instructor alone, we severely limit its appeal. Such a narrow focus can also prompt us to write less or skip important logical links because we assume that our expert audience will be able to fill in the gaps and understand our paper all the same. A much better strategy would be to think of our audience as a community of readers, such as the readership of a small-town newspaper. These readers are interested in what we have to say (but they’re easily distracted) and they expect something that is informative, well written and easy to follow. We don’t know exactly who is going to pick up this newspaper, so we need to be on our best behaviour: our tone must aim toward being helpful without being overly casual (and never slangy). If we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we’ve hit it just right.



Beyond that feeling that there is an audience out there, waiting breathlessly for this paper you’re working on, it also helps to have a clear sense of what you’re trying to do for this audience. Are you trying to entertain them? Is your paper a matter of self-expression? Do you have opinions or feelings that you need to share with others? Are you trying to persuade others that you have a view of things that is clear-sighted, useful, and needs to be shared? Or that someone else’s position is faulty or otherwise wrong? Are you trying to provide an exposition of facts or process or definition that others can take advantage of, or are you trying to persuade them of the rightness of a moral or ethical position? The objectivity, mood, and earnestness of your prose will be determined by this attitude or sense of purpose.



Our behavior while attending church is different from our behavior while hanging out in the back yard with friends. Part of that difference is the difference in language, a difference not just in the words we use but in what we call tone. Just as the pitch and volume of one’s voice carry a difference in tone from street to church, the choice of words and the way we put our sentences together convey a sense of tone in our writing. The tone, in turn, conveys our attitude toward our audience and our subject matter. Are we being frivolous or serious, casual or formal? The choice of a single word can change the tone of a paragraph. In the first sentence of this paragraph, for example, the phrasal verb hanging out is considerably more casual than others verbs we might have chosen (gathering, congregating, assembling) to reinforce the difference between the informality of an afternoon spent with friends and the formality of attending a church service.


Another measure of the formality of our language is our use of contractions. The paragraph on audience has several verb contractions: it’s, they’re, don’t, and we’ve. We use contractions all the time in casual conversation, and using contractions in our text will convey an informal quality. To elevate the style, eliminate the contractions and write out the verbs: “if we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we have hit it just right.” It is a very easy matter to do a search for apostrophes in our text, and it is a very useful exercise. First, we can check for any possessives we may have formed incorrectly, but then we can also check for contractions. There is nothing inherently wrong with contracted verbs; however, they are one hallmark of informality, and your instructor may object to their use.


Informal vs. Formal Writing

Informal Writing

Formal Writing

Uses contractions (can’t, they’re) Avoids contractions (cannot, they are)
Uses abbreviated words (TV, info, lab) Avoids abbreviated words (television, information, laboratory)
Uses phrasal verbs (to go up, to back up, to find out) Avoids phrasal verbs (to increase, to support, to discover)
Uses colloquialism and slang (guy, gonna, for sure) Avoids colloquialism and slang (man, going to, definitely)
Addresses the reader in the second person (you) Addresses the reader in the third person (one, the reader) or uses the passive voice
Uses shorter, simpler sentences Uses longer, more complex sentences

To understand better the difference between formal and informal writing styles, imagine the following situation: you have trouble getting started on a paper and you decide to email your professor to ask for help. Since your relationship with your professor is formal, your email should be as professional (coherent, concise, courteous) as possible. For example:

Hello Dr. Richardson,

My name is Camille Lapierre. I attend your Introduction to Economics class Monday and Wednesday mornings. I am writing concerning the mid-term essay due on March 15. After doing some research and brainstorming last week, I have narrowed the topic down to three ideas, but I cannot decide which one is the most relevant to the course. Would you be available to discuss this issue with me tomorrow afternoon at your office hour?

Thank you in advance for your assistance,
Camille Lapierre


Now imagine sending an email on the same topic to one of your close friends. The second email would likely have a more informal (personal, casual, direct) tone and sound a lot like a conversation between the two of you:


I need your help ASAP! I’m stuck with the Intro to ECS assignment. It’s due on Friday and have no clue what to write it on. I’m freaking out! Can I come over tonight to pick your brain for ideas? I’ll bring pizza!

Thanks! Later!