Understanding voice and tone in writing

Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing

She knew it … this article would be so good, that her readers would feel touched and inspired.

She felt excited. She had finally found her voice, and was writing with passion, power, and pizzazz. Yay!

She brewed a cup of evening tea. Then decided to go for a whiskey. She felt so elated with her success. Any minor editing could wait until the next day.

But, the next day …

Heather feels disappointed. Her article doesn’t sound that great. Where has the energy gone? Why does her writing feel so robotic?

How can she power up her words and add sparkle to her writing?

How can she be more human?

We’ve all been there. We think our writing is good, but then get disappointed when we re-read a draft.

But don’t despair. A few easy tricks (yes, really!) exist to change the tone of your writing, so you can engage and inspire your readers.

Shall I explain?

An example of a human writing voice

MailChimp, a company in marketing automation, shows us how to write with a human voice. In its style guide, MailChimp describes its voice as:

MailChimp’s voice is human. It’s familiar, friendly, and straightforward. Our priority is explaining our products and helping our users get their work done so they can get on with their lives. We want to educate people without patronizing or confusing them.

This is a good starting point for writing like a real human being: The priority is always your readers—to help them rather than impress them with your knowledge.

But MailChimp’s real trick is to vary the tone of its writing. Its writers first think about their reader and their mood, and then vary their writing style depending on that mood. This is what makes them more human.

For instance, here’s an example message from MailChimp—when a reader has successfully sent a campaign:

Fine piece of work! You deserve a raise.

And this is an example of a failure message:

We’re experiencing a problem at one of our data centers. Our engineers are on the case, and will have things back to normal shortly.

Feels different, right?

While a voice remains constant, a writing tone can vary—enthusiastic because your readers completed a task, or compassionate because readers feel frustrated when something went wrong.

It’s like with a band. The Rolling Stones sing a ballad like Angie differently from a rock song like Satisfaction. But despite the difference, their style is still recognizable—they still sound like The Rolling Stones.

By varying the tone in your writing you connect with each of your readers. You celebrate their achievements with them. You commiserate with their failures. You offer empathy for their struggles. And you offer encouragement when they’re a little hesitant.

Shall I show you how?

1. Edit out a corporate voice

  • The problem with a lot of content is that it feels like it’s produced by companies for a faceless crowd.
  • To put your human voice back into your writing, start by skipping the gobbledygook and replace it with everyday language.
  • Gobbledygook-filled writing:

To those of you who experienced problems, we apologize for the inconvenience.

More human writing:

I’m sorry if you’ve experienced problems due to our datacenter failure.

Note the difference in tone between “To those of you who …” vs “If you’ve experienced …” and the difference between “we apologize for the inconvenience” vs “I’m sorry.”

When you re-read your content, ask yourself: Would you use these words when talking to a person? Are you addressing one person directly?

2. Try a more conversational tone

  1. Want to truly engage each reader?
  2. Try adding a question.
  3. Have you noticed how I’ve sprinkled questions over this blog post?
  4. This is a deliberate editing trick.

  5. When your reader is gliding through your text on auto-pilot, a question slows him briefly down as his brain starts thinking about the answer.

Questions not only make readers pay attention to your ideas, they also give them the feeling you’re having a conversation—as if you’re drinking a cup of tea (or a whiskey!) together.

Simple, eh?

3. A touch of compassion

Are your readers feeling frustrated?

Wanna put a virtual arm around their shoulders?

Consider using the inclusive “we” so readers feel you’re in it together. Show them they’re not the only people suffering and that they don’t have to feel ashamed of themselves.

Quite distanced:

When you constantly tell a reader what she’s doing wrong, she starts feeling insecure. She may even feel she’s the only one in the world who still can’t do it. You also make her feel you’re superior. You’re great, and she’s stupid.

See also:  Compound possession

Is that how you want to write?

A warmer version:

Feeling frustrated by the tone of your writing?

We’ve all been there.

We write as if our life depends on it. We feel we’ve finally found our voice. But then, when we read back our draft, the writing sounds clunky. Where has our voice gone? Why do we sound so distanced? What has gone wrong?

Especially when writing about a sensitive topic or when your readers may feel lonely, depressed or frustrated, a dash of compassion helps you connect.

4. A spark of energy

Do your words waltz or jive?

Rhythm influences us more than we think.

For instance, when we work out at the gym, our brains synchronize with the rhythm of the music, too. An upbeat song makes us move faster. A dreamy love song slows us down.

In the same way, your readers experience the rhythm of your writing. Even when they don’t read your text aloud, they still hear their inner speech.

Want to add a spark of energy, and electrify your readers with your words? Try upping your rhythm with shorter sentences.

More sedate:

A slow cadence with long sentences allows readers to glide through your writing. If you want to be more energetic, up your tempo with shorter sentences so your writing sounds snappier.

More energetic:

A fast cadence with a mix of short and long sentences allows readers to hippety-hop through your words.

So, up your tempo. With staccato sentences. Quick. And snappy.

5. Poke readers into action

Want to truly inspire your readers?

Want them to jump up to implement your advice?

Powerful writing inspires readers to take action. A good sales page encourages readers to click and buy. Strong social media updates make people click to read more. And authoritative blog posts motivate readers to implement your tips.

To poke readers into action, use the imperative form of a verb. The imperative form is like a command:

Just do it Run! Bookmark this blog post

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Understanding the Tone and Voice of Your Message – Video & Lesson Transcript

The selection of word choice and sentence style can have a dramatic effect on a message. In the workplace, written correspondence should always have the most professional voice and tone in order to have the message well received. This means that the words chosen should be respectful, cordial and genial.

The voice of a message is how a writer's personality is reflected through written words. Tone is the author's attitude towards the reader of the message. We are heading inside the Lights, Camera, Drama Company to use their email communications as lessons in how to use voice and tone to communicate.

Voice

Megan works as a stage director for Lights, Camera, Drama. She has two different managers who she reports to on a daily basis.

Tony is all business and sends his emails with precise instructions and the lack of any individuality. Vinnie is very outgoing and treats Megan as a friend at work.

Both managers are assigning Megan the same task, but each lent their own personality, or voice, to the message.

Remember that the voice of a message is how a writer's personality is reflected through written words, or their unique way of expressing themselves. An individual creates their own voice, or style of writing, to capture a reader's attention. There are writers who use more flowing or colorful language, while others write with very sparse word choices.

Let's take a look at two separate emails Megan received regarding the same job assignment. The first email was from manager Tony. His personality is dry, even-tempered and work-obsessed.

You can see in the email that he is only concerned with sticking to the schedule: 'Please continue to work with the students to make sure they have all of the choreography and lines down for the dress rehearsal tomorrow.'

The second email was from Vinnie. His personality is outgoing, artistic, caring and free-spirited. He only cares about the actors learning and having fun – not about the bottom line.

His email is full of motivational thoughts and written casually: 'Megan, take a deep breath, and feel your students' energy.

Help them reach their full potential for the dress rehearsal, and you will all rock.'

Let's now take a look at how tone is used to convey a message.

Tone

The second key element of communicating a message is the tone, or author's attitude towards the reader of the message. Examples of tone include: confident, arrogant, racist, humorous, emotional, intimate, condescending and serious. Tone is used in conjunction with voice to create the mood and feel of a message.

See also:  What is encode?

There are two supportive pieces that help create tone: diction and imagery. Diction is the word choice used in a message to convey an idea. Every writer chooses certain words to convey a meaning, mood or attitude.

For example, if Megan was describing one of her employees, she could call the person a worker, actor or artist. Each word conjures up a different tone, and the most complimentary would be the choice of the word artist.

The second supportive piece of creating a tone is imagery, which is the picture a writer can create with their words to appeal to all of the reader's senses.

The writer can use figures of speech to create vivid descriptions that appeal to the reader such as juicy, luscious, decomposing, etc. When Megan was trying to create a summary of the new play, Robots & Dolls, she wanted to create a dark tone.

She used words such as desolate, darkening, apocalyptic and terrifying.

In order to choose the correct tone for a message, it is important to review three areas. Megan is preparing to send out an email to her staff about the last night of practice.

Purpose of the Message

The writer needs to decide why they are creating the message.

Is it to offer a reminder, congratulations or bad news such as a layoff? Once a writer determines the purpose, say to offer congratulations, they can then start to create a happy, positive tone.

Megan's purpose is to remind her actors about the final rehearsal, so she will want the email to have an authoritative, professional tone.

Recipient

The writer next needs to decide who should be receiving the message. Is it the entire company, the legal team or is it feedback to just one individual? Megan needs to inform the behind-the-scenes help, the producers and the actors about something important, so she will keep the tone serious.

Conveying of Message

In what way do you want to communicate the message? Megan knows that she needs to portray herself as the one in charge and command respect, so she keeps her email serious in tone and labels it high priority.

Positive vs. Negative

Megan's play has now completed its first week of performances at the theater. She has received two reviews in her email from local newspapers. Let's read the reviews and try to figure out the tone.

Style, Diction, Tone, and Voice

Style is the way in which something is written, as opposed to the meaning of what is written. In writing, however, the two are very closely linked. As the package for the meaning of the text, style influences the reader’s impression of the information itself.

Style includes diction and tone. The main goal in considering style is to present your information in a manner appropriate for both the audience and the purpose of the writing. Consistency is vital.

Switching styles can distract the reader and diminish the believability of the paper’s argument.

Diction

Diction is word choice. When writing, use vocabulary suited for the type of assignment. Words that have almost the same denotation (dictionary meaning) can have very different connotations (implied meanings). 

Examples:

Formal DictionCasual DictionSlang (very informal)
are not angry aren't mad ain't ticked 

Besides the level of formality, also consider positive or negative connotations of the words chosen.

Examples:

PositiveNegative
pruning the bushes slashing at the bushes
the politician's stance the politician's spin

Some types of diction are almost never advisable in writing. Avoid clichés, vagueness (language that has more than one equally probable meaning), wordiness, and unnecessarily complex language.

Tone

Aside from individual word choice, the overall tone, or attitude, of a piece of writing should be appropriate to the audience and purpose.

The tone may be objective or subjective, logical or emotional, intimate or distant, serious or humorous. It can consist mostly of long, intricate sentences, of short, simple ones, or of something in between.

(Good writers frequently vary the length of their sentences.)

Tone in Writing: A Simple Guide for Authors

Guest blog by Tami Nantz

If you’re confused about the difference between “voice” and “tone” in writing, you aren’t alone. Many writers conflate the two. 

  • Whether you’re writing a novel, a blog post, an article, or a poem, it’s important to know the difference so you can communicate with readers in a way that resonates. 
  • Your writing voice reflects who you are, your unique personality and character that should flavor everything you write.
  • Tone is the attitude with which you write it. 
  • So, voice is what you say, and tone is how you say it. 
  • That sounds simple, so let’s dig deeper. 
See also:  How to edit your own writing like a pro

Need help fine-tuning your writing? Click here to download Jerry's FREE self-editing checklist.

We communicate tone when we speak (whether we’re aware of it or not). 

Imagine you and I have an appointment and you get caught in traffic and show up half an hour late. 

“You always this punctual?” I say with a grin. 

My smile sends a clear message—I’m not upset, I’m being sarcastic. That’s tone. 

Communicating tone in writing is no different. 

Avoid the mistake of telling your reader what to feel. Instead, convey your attitude or emotion with carefully chosen words that create the perfect tone for your story.

Types of Tone in Writing

The list is nearly endless—show me a human emotion, I’ll show you a tone—

but here are the basic ones: 

  1. Formal
  2. Informal 
  3. Optimistic
  4. Pessimistic
  5. Joyful
  6. Sad
  7. Sincere
  8. Hypocritical
  9. Fearful
  10. Hopeful
  11. Humorous
  12. Serious

While tones can vary with every character and scene, the overall tone of your story must remain consistent to keep from confusing your reader and hindering your message.

Examples of Tone in Literature 

  1. Robert Frost begins his poem The Road Not Taken with a hopeful, contemplative tone.

  2. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
  3. And sorry I could not travel both
  4. And be one traveler, long I stood
  5. And looked down one as far as I could
  6. To where it bent in the undergrowth;
  7. By the end, he’s switched to reflection and positivity.

     

  8. I shall be telling this with a sigh
  9. Somewhere ages and ages hence:
  10. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
  11. I took the one less traveled by,
  12. And that has made all the difference.

  13. In The Old Man and the Sea, his  final published work, Ernest Hemingway effects a tone of loneliness, sadness, defeat, and discouragement (at least on the part of the boy). 

But, you can also read into what’s not said and detect a tone of courage or expectation on the part of the old man. Who continues to fish day after day when they’ve caught nothing? 

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him.

But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

Tone, Voice, and Point of View

Yo! Wassup?
Hey, how you doin’?

Hello, how are you today?

Which of the above greetings sounds most formal? Which sounds the most informal? What causes the change in tone?

Your voice can’t actually be heard when you write, but it can be conveyed through the words you choose, the order you place them in, and the point of view from which you write. When you decide to write something for a specific audience, you often know instinctively what tone of voice will be most appropriate for that audience: serious, professional, funny, friendly, neutral, etc.

For a discussion of analyzing an author’s point of view when reading a text, see Point of View in the “Writing about Texts” section.

What is point of view, and how do I know which one to use?

Point of view can be tricky, so this is a good question. Point of view is the perspective from which you’re writing, and it dictates what your focus is. Consider the following examples:

  • I love watching the leaves change in the fall. (First person point of view)
  • You will love watching the leaves change color. (Second person)
  • The leaves in fall turn many vibrant colors. (Third person)

Which of the above sentences focuses most clearly on the leaves? Third person, right? The first person sentence focuses on what “I” love and the second person sentence focuses on what “you” will love.

  • First person uses the following pronouns: I, me, my, us, we, myself, our, ours … any words that include the speaker/writer turn the sentence into first person.
  • Second person uses any form of the word “you,” which has the effect of addressing the reader.
  • Third person

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