This is part five in a five-part series.
The fifth installment in “Getting Your Writing to Flow” (in case you’ve missed them, here are parts one, two, three, and four) focuses on an issue that is at once more global and more local than any of the others we have covered. It’s tone, and it’s at the very heart of your work as a writer and of your writing’s flow. If your tone doesn’t work, your writing won’t work.
Tone is the writer’s emotional attitude toward the topic at hand. (In the case of fiction, it would be the speaker’s attitude, which the writer may or may not personally endorse.)
A writer’s tone is sometimes paralleled with a speaker’s tone of voice. However, a writer’s voice is something slightly different. A writer’s voice is analogous to a personality, which is consistent day-to-day and unique to that person.
I will use blogs to illustrate the difference between voice and tone. Each of your favorite blogs has a distinct voice that unifies all of the posts the blogger has written. Voice is a perspective, a way of looking at the world, and many times a blog is successful because many readers enjoy that writer’s unique take on life. Within a single successful blog, however, posts can have many different tones. Depending on the topic and the writer’s thoughts and feelings about it, the tone could be passionate, content, defiant, pleading, assertive or a thousand others.
Some tones will glue your readers to the page; others will drive them away. So, what do you need to consider to set the perfect tone for your topic? I’m glad you asked.
Consider your purpose in writing. Are you writing to inform, persuade, entertain, spark dissent, start controversy, begin discussion…? For example, let’s say you are writing an essay to convince people of the need for mandatory municipal recycling programs. If that is what you want to communicate, then your purpose is persuasive. If you want to persuade readers of something, you’ll need to win them over. To do so, your tone could be charming, sincere, humorous, gracious, humble, or friendly (that’s not a complete list, of course).
Your topic helps you choose which tone to use.
Which one do you feel would be most appropriate, given your topic and what you plan to say about that topic?
Consider your reader. Always. Who are your readers? What do they want from your piece? In a persuasive piece, your readers do not agree with you. Their skepticism should affect your tone.
Since tone in writing parallels spoken tone of voice, try reading your piece aloud. Try to put the tone’s emotion into your voice as you read. Do any phrases sound strange in your tone of voice? If the words don’t seem to fit the tone of voice in which you’re delivering the piece, then you can bet that you haven’t struck the right note in your writing.
A final word of caution: beware anything that smacks of belligerence. There is a fine line between passion and aggression; one can potentially win your reader’s loyalty, while the other will likely offend them. Sometimes what a writer finds wry and wittily cutting, the reader finds arrogant and rude. If in doubt, tone it down.