A Question of Tone

As a writer, tone is one of the most important tools that you have at your disposal. While ideas, and structure, and vocabulary choice, and rhythm all matter, it is tone that allows you to connect with your readers. It is tone that whispers in your reader’s ear and says: “You might like to listen to what I am saying.” Some commentators say that tone is irrelevant – that what matters are the arguments you make, and the evidence you offer to back them up. But this stance ignores one of the most important aspects of being a writer (indeed one of the most difficult aspects of being a writer). And that is: How do I get people to read my stuff and actually think about what I’ve written? The most brilliant argument in the world is of absolutely no use if no one wants to read what you have said.

One way to get people to read your writing is to use a controversial tone – to make rude comments, to use rude words, or to make sweeping statements with which people will disagree. Readers are drawn to this kind of writing because of its shock value. We seem to love to get cross about what other people say. But in the long term, this kind of tone is hard to sustain – it is destructive rather than constructive. I don’t want to spend my life making other people cross, or feeling angry and being disparaging when I write. I write for a living, and making a living from being rude would be kind of a sad way to spend my time.

Last night I had the very wonderful experience of being told by one of my readers that she loved my books. While she found my ideas helpful, that wasn’t what she picked up on as the reason for her enjoyment. Rather than the content being critical, what she really liked was their tone. (I will admit to feeling totally chuffed by what she said.) My experience is that readers want to feel like you are speaking to them on a level, rather than talking down to them from a lofty perch. They want to sense that you understand their experiences, and how complex their lives can be. There is a danger in a tone that says to your readers: “This is the way to do it. I am right and everyone else must do it in this way.” And the danger is that one day your readers might say: “Well, sod you then. I’ll go and read someone else.”

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