Getting Your Writing To Flow, Part 5: Tone

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.

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3 Responses to Getting Your Writing To Flow, Part 5: Tone

  1. Adam says:

    I would like to thank you, now that I’m done reading through the archives. You have reminded me of many rules I forgot out of convenience and shown me perspectives in communicating that I never considered before.

    My nature requires me to test things out as soon as I learn something new, partially to get a feel for the process, and partially to get feedback to see if I understand what was shared.

    One thing that caught me was in part four of the Flow series. I have not looked at what I have written previously, yet, out of fear that I have been using passive voice extensively. Instead, I wrote a single play in a baseball game in order to try out my active voice, to see if I could portray the action clearly and communicate the excitement of five seconds contained in a two hour game.

    The bat cracked as it made contact with the ball. The ball flew out towards right field, striking the ground feet in front of the right-fielder’s glove. As soon as the ball rolled into the glove, the right fielder twisted his body, grabbed the ball from the glove, and let loose a powerful toss right at third base.

    The runner from second base had a few seconds of lead, having started to run early, intending to steal the base. The ball raced towards third base. The third baseman planted his foot immediately in front of the base, ignoring the runner and willing the ball to move faster. The runner jumped into a face-first slide, kicking up a cloud of dust as he landed. Momentum carried the runner closer to the plate. As the runner reached out for the base, he felt the third baseman’s foot blocking the way. A fraction of a second later, as momentum continued to carry the runner around and past the base and the third baseman’s foot blocked the runner’s hand from touching the bag, the sound of hard leather hitting soft leather rang out. Sure of his grip, the third baseman lowered his gloved hand and brushed it, almost gently, across the runner’s back.

    The umpire, aware of the baseman’s shoe stopping the runner’s hand, let out a loud shout and raised his right hand to his shoulder. The play ended, and the runner jogged back to his team’s dugout.

    The intended audience is people who have at least a basic understanding of baseball, and its purpose is to entertain, with some minor persuasive elements to convince people who think baseball is boring that there is a lot of action packed in each play than meets the eye. The persuasive elements are a distant second to the entertaining elements, though.

    Also, the reason why I’m sharing it here is to get some feedback so that I can get an idea of what to concentrate on as I start broadening my reasons for writing.

  2. loren says:

    Hi, Adam —

    I don’t see a single passive construction here, and the description is vivid. This piece entertained me as a reader for two reasons. First, the story itself was engaging. Second, I could feel your excitement and joy as a writer through the prose. You can always tell, I think, when a writer likes what he or she has written.

    I will look forward to our fellow writers’ responses in the comments.


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