Tone is broadly described as the author’s attitude toward his or her subject. It can be passionate, distant, angry, and lighthearted, among many other possibilities. Unfortunately there are too many possibilities for us to cover, and without knowing your subject, we cannot give the most specific advice possible. The obvious pitfalls include sounding condescending or frivolous, while sounding energetic and enthusiastic is a definite positive.
Although we cannot be more detailed about these specific approaches, there are still important general lessons to convey. In this section we will teach you how to strike a balance between sounding too casual and too formal. Then we will discuss ways to achieve the confident, energetic tone for which all writers should strive.
The danger in writing too casually is that you might come across as someone who does not take the application process seriously enough. When we say that you should be conversational, you should think in terms of an interview conversation. In other words, the situation is serious, but your words sound natural and not overwrought. Writing that is too informal would be the language you use when chatting with friends.
Some examples include the use of colloquialisms, sentence fragments, or slang. The following should illustrate a clear problem:
“The way I look at it, someone needs to start doing something about disease. What’s the big deal? People are dying. But the average person doesn’t think twice about it until it affects them. Or someone they know.”
Too Formal / Detached
More people err on the side of being too formal, because they take the quality of being professional to an extreme. They forget that this is a personal and not an academic essay. For example, some people even try to write about themselves without using the first person, because they were taught in high school English that “I” is anathema.
Generally the problem of sounding too formal goes along with detaching oneself from one’s subject. Some writers will try to write too objectively or as though they were trying to provide logical evidence for a thesis. Consider this before-and-after example:
Before: There was a delay in the start of the project, attributable to circumstances beyond the control of all relevant parties. Progress came to a standstill, and no one was prepared to undertake the assessment of the problem and determination of the solution. An unexpected shift in roles placed this duty on myself.
After: The project got off to a late start due to circumstances beyond our control. We could not move forward, and no one stepped forward to take the lead in figuring out what went wrong. Despite my junior status, I decided to undertake this challenge.
The second version clearly sounds more natural, and the uses of “our,” “we,” and “I” make the reader sense that the writer has a more personal stake in the problem. There are several differences worth noting.
- The second version is shorter. Writing in excessively formal language often requires more words, such as “beyond the control of all relevant parties” vs. “beyond our control.”
- The second version avoids two to be verbs and replaces them with more active ones.
- The first version turns words that are usually verbs into nouns: “determination” and “assessment.” This adds a definite stiffness to the writing.
- The second version uses phrases that sound conversational but not informal: “got off to a late start” and “figuring out what went wrong.” The line is fuzzy, but again, ask yourself if you would use these phrases in an interview. The answer here should be yes, while “What’s the big deal?” is a clear mistake.
- Another example of the first version depersonalizing the issue is in the last sentence, which is ambiguous. The new version does not rely on the vague phrase “an unexpected shift in roles” and has the further benefit of making the writer sound more active in assuming leadership.
Within this category, we will also cover how to sound enthusiastic, positive, and passionate—in other words, the basic qualities every essay should have regardless of its subject. We will go through some general guidelines and offer before-and-after examples when appropriate:
- Avoid phrases such as “I believe,” “I feel,” and “I think.” Even worse are phrases that add an adverb, such as “I strongly believe.” Your tone will be much more confident if you just make the statement without preface.
- There is little value that can come from being negative, whether you are writing about a weakness or a negative external situation. Downplay the negative aspects and emphasize the positive.
Before: Our business has struggled since the whole market started its downturn, but we are staying strong.
After: Despite a slowdown that has coincided with the market struggles, we have taken measures to remain competitive and are beginning to reverse the downturn.
- When you are trying to convey your enthusiasm about a subject, the language you use should parallel your feelings. Stiff, deadened, and passive writing will contradict the passion you are claiming to possess. Use action verbs to inject vigor into your writing, and of course, show rather than tell whenever possible.
Before: Civil rights is an issue I feel strongly about. The legal field is closely related to this issue, and I would like to use it as an avenue to effect change.
After: I have marched, demonstrated, and campaigned for the civil rights of all people. Now I hope to tackle the systemic roots of the problem through a career in law.
- Emphasize your active role. This point has come up so many times because it affects so many aspects of your writing. Highlight the ways in which you actively contributed to a situation or to your own progress. For example, if you were assigned an important project, you should point out that your consistent quality of work earned you higher responsibilities.
Before: I was not sure what job to take next, but a great opportunity in health care administration came up.
After: I explored a wide range of career possibilities and discovered an opportunity in health care administration that intrigued me most.
A Note on Humor
Being funny in writing is very difficult, because the voice and exact context depend on the reader and are in a sense beyond the writer’s control. You could be a very funny person and nevertheless be unable to show that side of you in writing. If you see potential for using humor, you should aim small. Do not expect big laughs by being outrageous. Instead, aim to bring a smile to the reader’s face by including a clever witticism.
Be careful that your tone does not come across as flippant or overly sarcastic. Slight irony is good, and self-deprecating humor can be effective, because it shows that you do not take yourself too seriously.
Next: Essay Clichés