Online Guide to Writing and Research

Chapter 3: Thinking Strategies and Writing Patterns

A Word About Style, Voice, and Tone

Style Through Vocabulary and Diction

Many disciplines have their own vocabulary of special terms that you learn as you study each discipline. The way you use a special vocabulary affects the style and tone of your writing. The longer you study the discipline and the more you read, the better you will become at mastering its vocabulary.

Students may get into trouble because they do not know the vocabulary of a discipline. They may use ordinary words where special words are needed, or their writing may simply become vague. Teachers may identify such writing by inserting in the margin comments, such as vague diction, poor word choice, or even inappropriate style.

The following hypothetical examples from two papers on reducing defects in software development show you what a difference vocabulary can make in establishing style, tone, and credibility for each writer. Note that even though the first writer understands some basic principles taught in the technical management course, she lacks the vocabulary to express what she has learned. To make up for her lack of appropriate words, and thus of clear thought, she uses vague terms to establish criteria, such as bad and worse, and falls back on clichés, such as rocket science. The second writer, on the other hand, has mastered the few special words he needs to express the concepts taught in class and to draw conclusions from what he has learned. His writing is clear and focused, his style and tone appropriate.

L Below-Average Paper

Most defects are bad but some are worse than others. Software developers have to know how to identify the defects that will cause the biggest problems and correct these first. This isn’t rocket science—people just have to discipline themselves to look for errors as they occur. Technical managers also have to know how to keep track of the defects (through some of the ways we discussed in class). They also have to know how to make decisions based on their findings and tracings.

J Above-Average Paper

Not all defects in software products are created equal, and not all have the same effects on the shipment decisions that a technical manager must make. When a project manager or software development team tracks the severity levels of problems in the code, shipment decisions become easier. Severity levels can be established as part of the overall plan for testing the product, which generally includes function testing as well as integrated system testing. Severity levels may be set, for example, on a scale of 1 to 4, where Sev-1 errors cause the program to abort, Sev-2 errors impede user progress, Sev-3 errors cause a particular function not to work, and Sev-4 errors represent cosmetic changes that will make the software better but will not have any of the effects of the other three severity types. Using the severity system of classification and an automated tracking system, technical managers have the data they need to make the important decisions about whether to ship a product. For example, a product with three Sev-4 errors remaining in it will probably be shipped, whereas one with four Sev-1 errors will not.

Vocabulary is related to diction, another important element of style. Where vocabulary refers to the specific words in a discipline, diction refers to the overall selection of language for your writing. Words are not right and wrong in and of themselves. They are appropriate and inappropriate in terms of whether they support your purpose. If your purpose is to present your thesis and research so that your reader will find your position credible, then your diction should be appropriate—objective, concrete, and specific.

Finally, style rests on language. Poor style and unacceptable tone do impede communication and may affect your grade. They can make group work difficult. You should cultivate a style that shows your knowledge and command of course material and that enables you to convey opinions about what you have learned in a manner that audiences, including your teacher, will appreciate.

Here are some practical suggestions for developing a style that supports your content and your thinking:

  • Let your purpose guide your writing. Your style is the result of your control over your content, not added later to give your writing "personality." Know what you want to accomplish with your content, and your style will take care of itself.
  • In general, choose a style between colloquial and formal. This moderate style will work in most cases where your assignment does not specifically call for a colloquial or formal style.
  • Keep your style consistent in tone and diction by carefully choosing the patterns of writing and vocabulary that best serve your purpose.
  • Try to anticipate how your reader will understand your writing. Be specific and concrete and avoid wordiness.

In summary, writing is thinking. As you improve your thinking skills, your writing skills will improve; as your writing improves, your language will become more articulate and reflect your evolving critical thinking. If you would like to improve these skills formally, consider taking COMM 396: Critical Analysis in Reading and Writing.