As a writer, it is up to you to set the tone in your writing that will impact how the reader feels after reading what you have to say. But how do you define tone? And, more importantly, how can you utilize the power of tone in your writing?
What is tone in writing?
In writing, “tone” describes the attitude the writer conveys through the words on the page. That tone might be cheerful, serious, professional, or casual.
When people speak audibly, they communicate their feelings and attitude from the tone of their voice. They might place vocal emphasis on certain words, get louder or softer when they are passionate about a topic, or change the speed of their speech to show how serious or casual a topic is.
When conveying tone while writing however, we are forced to rely on a different set of tools. We are forced to use the words themselves to convey the tone we are hoping to communicate through the message.
To be an effective writer, you must master being intentional with the tone you use. So what are the steps you need to take?
1. Know your intended audience
Know who you are speaking to through your writing. Who are you trying to reach? Are you writing to educators? Small-business owners? DIY enthusiasts?
Or are you writing to people undergoing similar life obstacles or accomplishments? Understand what brings your audience together and what they have in common. When you understand their commonalities you can better understand the tone to take while speaking and relating to them.
- Example: Runner’s World is a publication that has readers that are united for their love of running. Their readers may come from many different walks of life, but they are all united in running and reading from a publication that seeks to help and inspire people to be better runners. The language and tone you would commonly find in Runner’s World would be uplifting, hopeful, and encouraging in order to continue to inspire those that are interested in reading and being inspired from other runners.
Once you can clearly define your audience, then you can understand the tone your writing should have.
2. Identify the content of your writing
Know what you are trying to achieve with your writing and the message you want to convey.
Is this a somber message you are writing on behalf of a company? Or are you writing a light-hearted anecdote about pumpkin pie before discussing a recipe for homemade pie crust?
Your tone should align and complement the message you are crafting and not detract or distract from it.
- Example: If you are writing about a company’s updates to their HR platform, you might want a direct tone that is to-the-point and does not have any extra information included, only the necessary updates and any actionable items. The tone would be clear, succinct, and helpful. Extra words, unrelated company information, or humor that might fit the tone of a different type of blog post would detract from this piece of writing that requires a simple and direct message.
Be careful that the tone helps you achieve the results you are looking for in your writing.
3. Identify whose voice you are speaking in
Who is the voice you are speaking for? Unless you are writing as yourself in a publication, you will need to understand the voice of your client you are writing for and the tone they wish to portray.
Often companies will have a style guide where they will define how they wish to represent themselves across channels. They might use words to describe their tone of communication such as professional, positive, courteous, or enthusiastic.
If they do not have a style guide, look through their online presence to understand the tone they usually take in their social media, blog posts, and website pages. Take note of how casual or professional they write.
- Example: Misfits Market is an online sustainable grocery delivery company. They seek to be a company that saves excess food from adding to the world’s waste. Their tone is hopeful, mission-oriented and inspirational. The messages they convey are focussed on inspiring their customers to be excited about doing good for the earth. They use phrases with a heroic tone such as “we rescue foods in real-time” and “we find everything a good home. Your home.”
It is always a good idea to check with your client if you have any questions about their intended tone before you begin writing.
4. Show, don’t tell
Once you understand your audience, your message, and the voice you are trying to convey, it is time to write in the appropriate tone.
As teachers love to say, be sure to “show, don’t tell”. Think about the tone you are trying to convey and show it by the stories you tell, the humor you insert, and your sentence structure.
For example, if you are trying to portray a business client that aims to have a polite, direct, and friendly tone, be sure to avoid detractors such as passive tone, slang, or excess words.
On the other hand, in more casual writing, such as in a blog post from a diy enthusiast, there may be a lighter and more familiar tone. Personal anecdotes, humor, and even casual bits of slang might fit more in this style of writing. The relatable tone the writer takes works to draw the reader in as if they are hearing a story from a friend.
- Example: Hanna Andersson is a company that makes and sells high quality children’s clothing and matching family outfits. They are focussed on consistently sending out friendly, family-focussed messaging with a tone that is always positive, happy, and cheerful. Their blog content features positive and happy blog posts such as “Hygge for the holidays” or “The Importance of Play in Early Childhood.”
This type of writing would steer away from negative topics or taking a discouraging tone, but instead highlight happy moments, happy experiences, and use an uplifting tone that is consistent with their brand.
5. Read your writing out loud to listen for tone
Read your work aloud. How does your voice naturally lean while reading the words? Does your message sound casual, as if you are speaking to a friend? Or do you sound more professional, as if you are speaking to a roomful of business colleagues. Make adjustments to your writing as needed after you hear it to make it convey the appropriate tone.
Take this opportunity to look for pieces that detract from the attitude you are trying to convey. If you are trying to write an uplifting piece that inspires the reader into action, take away any sentences that focus on negative actions and feelings.
If you are trying to portray a serious tone for a somber message, make sure your message does not contain run-on sentences, extra paragraphs that could be cut out, or anything else that distracts the reader away from the seriousness of the message.
6. Continue to practice
You do not become a master at detecting and utilizing tone in one day.
Take time to practice identifying and then setting the tone in your own writing. Look around you and note the ways other writers communicate the tone of their written words. As you become better at identifying the tone of what you are reading, you will become better at writing according to a specific tone as well.