Monday, June 18, 2012

Tone in Writing

As I am preparing to teach writing this fall, I went through many of my writing craft books and discovered a textbook from my English & Composition course I took in college back in 1986. I remember I kept the book because it was a great resource.

Who knew that 26 yrs later I would need it again as a teacher?

I thought I'd share some insights I have gained from reading through this book.


Tone in Writing

So what is meant by "tone" in writing?

Well, to begin with, it depends on what it is you are writing.

A formal paper should have a formal tone. A journalistic piece of informational writing should have no tone at all if it is to be read as "unbiased". And a narrative should have whatever tone the author wants to convey.

See? Isn't that easy?

If writing were easy, everyone would be doing it.


According to Hairston (1982), tone is the "frame of mind and mood that the piece conveys to the reader" (p.243).

Tone is analogous to the writer's voice in that it is the speaker's tone of voice. For instance, if the writer wants to seem confident, they must select words that are not apologetic or hesitant, but straight to the point. A writer must always address the audience in an appropriate manner.

A more casual piece of writing might consist of more contractions like don't, can't, won't, etc. to convey a more conversational tone to the reader.  But a more formal piece of writing might contain fewer contractions or none at all. Most academic institutions prefer no contractions in their students' academic papers. A formal tone creates a great distance between the reader and the writer. This type of writing consists of longer sentences, higher-level vocabulary, and third person.

A narrative piece can be formal, casual, or conciliatory all at once if that is what the writer wants.

Creative Writing

Because creative writing allows the writer to be just that—creative with tone and voice—most people are drawn to creative writing more than any other. It allows for freedom from constraints of formal writing!

With an informal tone, the writer can put less distance between themselves and the reader. A story can draw in the reader with just a few choice words, pace, rhythm, and tone. It's that power that appeals to the writer.

Look how much fun C.S. Lewis had with his Narnia books! He not only had a more informal tone when dealing with his younger characters, but he switched to a more formal tone with Aslan in order to convey reverence and awe. By creating his own world, Lewis also created his own method of conveying tone and voice.

In Kathryn Stockett's The Help, she is able to convey a more informal tone and voice throughout her book, yet she is also able to create distance between the reader and certain characters while creating intimacy with other characters. Her tone throughout the book is often casual, yet when dealing with the social issues of that historical period, she is able to convey a seriousness to the reader to remind them of the dangers at hand.


Now that you've had a glimpse into what tone is in writing, have fun with it! Change up the tone in your story as you change up your characters. But always keep your audience in mind. By remembering the audience, the writer is able to decide on the tone of a writing piece.

But remember to keep writing!



  1. Keep writing--the best advice of all! Tone is such a subtle, intangible business. Too often I've read suspense novels with gripping premises--but the tone is not pull-the-reader along, but too languid for suspense. Might work great with a different novel, though. Figuring out what tone is right for your book, then how to create it, is key. Sometimes this happens naturally, but not always.

    1. Tone can be tricky. I guess since I have completed then read so many academic writings lately, I have tried my best to write my own work with a more informal tone that draws the reader into my world.

      But you are correct, some writers still leave a giant space between themselves and the reader in their creative writings. Not sure this is very wise. I know it's a turn-off for me!

      Thanks for visiting, Jenny!

  2. Good advice! How cool that a book that old (almost as old as me! Ha!) is still relevant! ;)

    1. I know! I am so glad I kept it even though the class itself was dull. The book is very good. I will definitely use it for my class. I think the kids will get a kick that they are learning thigns from a college textbook!

      And yes, even my books are OLD. Ha ha!