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October 11, 2007

Voice and Tone: Writing to reflect your personality as well as your message (Part 1)

Scale of tone? Or is there more to it?

Last week someone posted a question to the WordNerds group regarding the importance of voice and tone in writing. In particular she wanted to know how to convey the importance of voice and tone to colleagues who aren't professional writers. Not having covered this topic previously I thought I'd give it a go.

Voice and Tone, is there a difference?

After prowling the Web looking for various references on the subject I've found that opinions differ on this. Some treat the terms interchangeably, while others see key distinctions. For the purpose of this blog, I will define voice to represent the personality and/or style of the writer and tone to reflect the mood or attitude of the writing in relation to its audience and goal. Today I'll focus on tone.

Tone and formality

Writers often think of tone as a measure of formality, striking a more serious mood and style for an academic paper, a not-as-serious mood (the equivalent of business casual clothing) for an informative blog entry and a light mood and casual style for an e-mail to a friend. They do this in regard to their audience and publication as though there were a corresponding scale that shows that serious, matter-of-fact writing is taken more seriously by peer-reviewed journals and professors, while a laid-back tone is more welcomed by friends.

While this makes sense to a degree, I'm not sure that such a scale is accurate. When deciding whether a writer is well-informed and making a good case, I'm more likely to consider how the information is organized, the logic of the arguments made, and any related sources, than I am the seriousness of tone. Where I will consider the tone is when it comes to readability. Is the piece so dry that I'm asleep before I finish? Does it match the subject matter? Is it appropriate to the message or does it make the writer seem disingenuous? Some writers will strike a serious tone to seem more authoritative, when in fact that tone seems false, making us question—rather than trust—the authority.

When matching seriousness of tone to audience it's equally important to match the tone to our goals. Are we writing to inform? To persuade? To warn? To amuse? To console?

If I were writing guidelines for the safe-handling of sodium, my first instinct might be to take a very serious tone. Sodium is dangerous, it shouldn't be touched by human hands, mixed with water, bla bla bla. Yet, if I'm giving these guidelines to students, I want them to pay attention, both to keep them safe and to keep them interested. While I want to make sure they don't hurt themselves, I also don't want to scare them away from the study of chemistry. Rather than just giving them somber warnings about explosions, perhaps it would be appropriate to follow the example of Theodore Gray—who documented his sodium party experiments in text and video. Gray's tone is moderately serious with a hint of humor, clearly demonstrates the dangers of sodium, yet still makes one want to learn more about it. Had he kept his tone too serious or dry no one would have paid much attention, but by striking the right balance, his story was passed along and mentioned in Slashdot and other media.

Tone and attitude

To be serious, or not, is but one measure of tone. Plenty of people stop there, but I think there is much more to it. Humorous writing may be sarcastic, flippant, silly or ironic (among others). Complaints can be angry, bitter, sad, cautious, polite, intense, etc. Tone comes in a wide range of attitudes, some of which may overlap. This is where things get tricky. It's (relatively) easy to write something that sounds serious and professional. That's the tone I've used so far today. But have I struck the right mood? In taking a straightforward approach to the topic, am I sounding condescending or collegial? Pedantic or informative? Have I so bored you that you're now asleep—dreaming that your lobster ice-cream franchise failed because you just couldn't compete with your rival's spicy crab cones?

These are the questions I must ask myself. When I re-read something, I'll question the mood. Is it too dry? Too goofy? Too dark? Does it suit the topic? Will it engage the reader? Today the fight has been to avoid being too dry or condescending. My goal is to offer some friendly advice, not to come off as some authoritarian know-it-all. To capture the right mood, I'll need to keep tweaking things. I'll replace sentences like:

"Writers are often confounded by such nuances." (Man, that sounds pompous.) with "This is where things get tricky."

Then I'll make sure that I've used contractions and added a few quirky ideas—such as the bit about the lobster ice-cream. Perhaps I'll also switch perspective. Notice how the bits I've written in first person seem more friendly than those in third person? Vocabulary, perspective and punctuation can all color the tone of the text. With that in mind I'll keep reading and tweaking until it sounds good enough to post. Good enough depends on your objective—given my time restraints I'll spend less time polishing a blog entry than I might an article for print publication. (That's my disclaimer in case I still didn't get the mood spot on!)


Choosing a tone, writing, then editing to reflect that tone seems to be what works best for me. It also helps to let someone else read your work. They may notice an attitude that you didn't. When they suggest a change to a word or phrase, take it under consideration. As writers we're often protective of our work, but if we're writing to be read, then we need to listen to our readers. They won't always be right, but they won't always be wrong either. Viewing your work through their eyes, will give you a new perspective, and often some very good ideas.

Also remember, you don't always have to sound serious to be taken seriously.

Voice and Tone Resources

To learn more, read Part 2: Voice

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Posted by: Heidi Cool October 11, 2007 03:26 PM | Category: Content , Heidi's Entries , Tips and Tricks , Writing



Well, I'll start with with a: "Wow, this is a massive topic!" and then a good example of terrible tone: "Hi! We bury dead people, and we've been doing it for, like .. years! So when it's time, bring your parents along. We offer a two for the price of one deal if one parent dies within the same financial year as the other. How's that for peace of mind?!"

I agree that there is a clear distinction between voice and tone. They're not at all interchangeable.

What I would add is that there are other variables that fall outside of voice and tone, but also have a very real impact on the readability of the passage of text; such as the length of the article and the use of paragraphs (concise being easier to read), for example...

Posted by Wayne Smallman on October 15, 2007 03:26 PM


Indeed, this topic is as massive as a Wooly Mammoth. I tried to tackle a bite size portion, but it was still a mouthful.

I think you are right that there are many other variables. I've touched on vocabulary a few other times, and will try to add other related topics in the future.

Not sure how I'll address the subject of brevity though. That's not a topic in which bolog entries excel! Though I could address it in terms of matching the amount of copy to the goal.

My initial thought is short and pithy (or other appropriate tone) for an advertisement, longer for something expository.

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 15, 2007 04:02 PM


I suppose you could (for part 2) offer a list of types of writing (sales, marketing, news, academic et cetera) and suggest what voice and tone to use...

Posted by Wayne Smallman on October 15, 2007 05:04 PM


That's not a bad idea. I've been pondering part 2 with an idea to focus on voice. My thought is that voice is the voice of the reader. In theory a writer could write an essay, a short story and a brochure and some constant voice would be recognizable throughout. Yet it would also adjust to the demands of the particular work.

So I might use my inside voice to blog and my outside voice for billboards.

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 15, 2007 05:33 PM


Couldn't you just use smilies to show what tone you're in? :)

Posted by gretchenaro on October 23, 2007 08:56 AM


Always the instigator, eh?

For hundreds and hundreds of years the human species has corresponded on paper and parchment without the need of smileys, yet somehow even before Usenet News and e-mail become popular, the smiley's started creeping in.

Do you think this is a result of people wanting a quicker way to communicate, or more that online communication is more casual—sometimes more sloppy—and the smileys came to substitute for more carefully written prose?

Posted by Heidi Cool on October 23, 2007 01:44 PM


My title amongst friend is Underminer but Instigator is good too.

Smilies are definitely one adorable little crutch used by those who don't believe they have the ability to make themselves understood. That being said, I still thing they're really cute.

Posted by gretchenaro on October 29, 2007 04:15 PM


The truth is when it comes to voice tone the topic is like so wide! I just had no idea that you can have a voice tone when writing. For me tone is during speaking.

Posted by Voice tone and attraction on November 6, 2007 02:48 AM

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Posted by: hac4 (Heidi Cool) October 11, 2007 03:26 PM | Comments (8) | Trackback