Tone in Writing
What is tone?
“Tone in writing refers to the writer’s attitude toward the reader
and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written
message affects the reader just as one’s tone of voice affects the
listener in everyday exchanges.” (Ober 88)
Students often do not realize that they are using a tone when they
write. Just as you can hear a voice in your ear when speaking
or listening to someone speak, there is a tone of voice that can
be heard in your brain when you are silently reading. This
writing tone has a large influence on whether a piece is considered
well-written, appropriate, and successful. However, what is
sometimes uncertain is which tone to take for a given writing assignment.
Who is your audience?
This is the first thing you must ask yourself in order to determine
the tone in which you should be writing. Writing an essay
for a professor will have a very different tone than if you were
writing an e-mail to your friend. Determine who your reader
(or readers) will be and what your purpose is in writing to them
– to teach, to entertain, to inform, etc.
What is your genre?
The determination of audience and genre often go hand-in-hand.
A genre is a category of writing characterized by a particular style
or format. Your genre will also determine your tone.
Are you writing an academic essay, a memo for work, a creative non-fiction
piece, a newspaper editorial, a website? There are also sub-genres
within genres. For instance, when writing a paper for a college
class, is it literary criticism, a personal reflection, a research
paper, a persuasive paper? All around you are opportunities
for writing, but the types of writing will call for different tones
or styles to make the piece appropriate.
tone should you take?
So here’s the big question. Once you have determined who your
reader will be and what sort of piece you are writing, it is time
to examine the tone of voice you should use.
Academic writing is the most formal, and probably most common, type
of writing you will ever be called upon to do during your educational
career. An academic tone is used in writing papers for college
classes, a master’s thesis, proposals for academic journals, etc.
In academic writing, you may be writing in response to something
you read, you may be proposing a new study you have developed, or
you may be trying to persuade a reader of something you have researched.
Whatever type of piece you are writing, an academic tone must include
a clear thesis, proper grammatical structure, well organized paragraphs,
and fully documented, integrated sources. Rarely are humor
and conversational language used in academic essays. Academic
papers call for serious, professional, scholarly writing, and that
is achieved by the tone.
Advice on Academic
(From the University of Toronto)
(An essential site for formatting and documenting)
(Focuses on writing for college)
is Jane Austen?" by Jenny Lang
(An example of academic writing, a student paper)
Link to word document
With creative nonfiction there is more room for experimentation
and, as the name implies, creativity. Creative nonfiction
is a genre that has always been around but is starting to get more
recognition. Creative nonfiction can cover any topic that
interests the writer or the reader: movies, sports, biography, hobbies,
memoirs, how-to’s, personal reflections, etc.
Creative nonfiction calls for a variety of tones, just as it can
embrace a variety of topics. However, the tone used for academic
essays is rarely used in creative nonfiction, unless used to emphasize
something specific. Creative nonfiction lends itself well
to the use of humor and more conversational language. That
is not to say that all creative nonfiction is funny. Many
excellent pieces of creative nonfiction deal with difficult or controversial
issues, and it is fortunate that this genre is so broad as to give
authors the opportunity to express themselves. The author
has more opportunity to step out of the page, sharing their own
thoughts, opinions, and dialogue.
Illness" by Laura Hillenbrand
(A personal reflection by the author of Seabiscuit)
"Bred and Buttered" by Rick Rielly
(A humorous Sports Illustrated piece)
Link to word document
"Turbulence" by David Sedaris
"How to Throw a Harry Potter Party and Live to Tell the Tale,
Or Read the Next Book" by Jenny Lang
(A "How-To" student paper)
Link to word document
Many of us are working while going to school, so we have to be able
to make the transition from academic writing to business writing.
Quite honestly, business writing does not require nearly as much
vocabulary or style as an academic essay or creative nonfiction
piece. Most business professionals do not have the time or
patience to read lengthy documents, therefore, the old cliché of
“short, sweet, and to the point” is quite appropriate here.
Business writing may include memos, cover letters, resumes, letters
of complaint, reports, etc.
Business writing can be broken down into helpful guidelines.
Be confident, so as to be persuasive – but be aware of not coming
off too cocky. Be courteous and sincere, and try to avoid
humor as this document may be read by many people with differing
senses of humor. Get your ideas out quickly and actively;
that is to say that some business professionals will not read the
whole document, so place the most important part at the beginning
and make sure you don’t sound passive. Finally, be sure to
use non-discriminatory langauge. Instead of “wife” use “spouse,”
instead of “Dear Sir” use “To Whom is May Concern,” and instead
of “his” or “her” use “their.”
(A resource of links regarding various topics of business writing)
Center at Rensselaer
(A guide for memo writing)
(Different types of business documents)
(The well-respected Online Writing Lab at Purdue University – this
is also an excellent source when writing any kind of paper)
Newspaper writing has more in common with creative nonfiction than
academic or business writing. This is because when people
read the newspaper they want to be entertained – whether it be with
something funny or with something gruesome. Like creative
nonfiction, newspapers and editorials can cover a wide range of
topics, although perhaps a little closer to home (as in local news).
In newspaper articles, the tone can be more conversational.
However, you don’t want to sacrifice quality information for a more
light-hearted tone. Newspaper writing must contain a balance
between reporting news and being entertaining enough to keep the
reader reading. Catchy titles and first sentences are often
important, as well as exciting or intriguing quotations from outside
sources. For editorial writing, although they are generally
opinion pieces, research is important because if you haven’t done
your homework, readers can respond in print. Many readers
of the newspaper have limited time and concentration, so making
things succinct, while maintaining lively language, is key.
(Online version of Sacramento’s newspaper)
(For aspiring journalists)
(A guide in outline format)
The State Hornet
(Sacramento State’s online news resource)
Website writing is becoming more and more prevalent. As the
World Wide Web expands and more people are going online, more sites
are being created by individuals for the purposes of making friends
(Myspace.com), researching (Highbeam.com), buying things (Amazon.com),
planning vacations (Travelocity.com), playing games (Pogo.com),
or an endless number of other things. Just as there are some
really good websites, there are some REALLY bad websites.
The good kind is, of course, preferred.
Good websites are easy to navigate and don’t leave the viewer wondering
what they are supposed to do next. The average person surfing
the web, whether it be for fun, work, or school, does not want to
spend a lot of time having to read. They want to get their
information quickly. Therefore, bolded links that enable a
person to go directly to what they want is best. Think of your own
surfing. Do you like to read a lot on a web page? Probably
not, so keep copy succinct and topical. Images and colors
are fun, but don’t let them get in the way of your content.
Vord Web Design
(A How-To site for website design and writing)
(A less detailed, less formal website guide)
* * *
If you are still uncertain
as to what kind of tone you should be using, don’t be afraid to
ask your professor, boss, editor, etc. There is nothing worse
than putting your time and energy into a piece that has the wrong
tone for the purpose. Writing should be a challenge, not a