“A word after a word after a word is power.”
All writing has tone, because all writing is a writer ‘speaking’ to a reader. Sometimes the tone is dispassionate, reasoned or scientific; other times it is emotional, friendly or funny. But as soon as you choose which words to put one after the other, and which punctuation to put where, you have created tone. The tone you use will vary according to the form you are writing in (a magazine article, a blog, a book, an academic essay). And it will also vary according to the audience for whom you are writing. I write regular pieces for several magazines, and I use a slightly different tone for each one. Once your readers get used to your tone, it needs to stay fairly consistent, because your readers come to you with an expectation of what your voice sounds like. Some publishers will ask you to write in a particular tone, which may or may not be the one you normally use. The “For Dummies” series has a very specific style guide for the author to follow – writing one of these books is a salutary lesson in using the active voice.
It’s useful to remember that tone is not really about the writer, and the writer’s desires or wishes. (Or at least it shouldn’t be, especially if you are writing for a living.) Tone is a demonstration of the writer thinking about the reader – it is a way of clarifying meaning, and connecting with people. This is not to say that you have to write in a tone that all your readers will enjoy – many people are happy to read pieces with a tone that jars or annoys them. But in the long run, readers will return to your writing if it ‘speaks’ to them as individuals. It can help to remember that readers may arrive at your writing with baggage. If they have an opinion of you, or of your ideas, it is likely that this will make them read your voice in a specific way (this can be positive, or negative). Tone is in the ear of the reader, rather than the eye of the writer. There is very little you can do to change this, so it is best not to worry too much if not everyone appreciates your tone.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
There are various ways to develop the tone of your writing. It is useful to consider:
- Whether you phrase things as a statement, or as a question: how certain you sound.
- Your choice of vocabulary, for instance whether you use inclusive words, such as ‘we’ and ‘us’, and whether your words and phrasing evoke emotion or not.
- The level of complexity in the vocabulary that you choose to use – interestingly, it can be harder to express a complex idea simply than a simple idea in a complicated way.
- Whether you incorporate metaphors and other figurative techniques in your writing. Extended metaphors are a useful way to connect a series of related ideas, particularly when writing articles.
- The way you use evidence to support the points you make. (Remember that evidence can include anecdotes and examples, as well as scientific research.)
- The length of the sentences you use and the rhythm this creates within your writing.
- The kind of punctuation you incorporate, and where you put punctuation marks. Question marks can totally change the tone of your writing, because they give a sense of the writer being tentative. (Why not use a few question marks in your piece?)
- Whether you write in an active or a passive voice. Most writing benefits from being more active than passive, especially journalism.
- How tightly you edit your writing – my advice would be to get rid of all the words that don’t have to be there, especially when writing for a magazine or a newspaper.
Although meeting reader expectations is important, it is also fun to challenge yourself to write in a different form, and with a different tone to that which you normally use. At the moment I’m writing a humorous narrative. I’m finding it pretty terrifying to do, because it is not the tone I usually use, and what I find funny might not be the same for my readers. But as with all writing, the only way to find out whether it works is to put the words on the page, one after another. And then to cross my fingers and my toes, hit the ‘publish’ button, and hope that my readers will find it funny too.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”