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Subscribe to our FREE email newsletter and download free character development worksheets! Adair Lara September 27, 2011 Do you obsess about the tone of your writing as you revise?

7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing “Tone”

Tone is one of the most overlooked elements of writing. It can create interest, or kill it. And of course any publication you want to write for will have its own tone, which it would be smart for you to try to match. Notice how quietly all New Yorker profile pieces begin, while Utne Reader favors unconventional and unexpected viewpoints that challenge the status quo. What exactly do I mean by tone? If you were a photographer, tone would be the way you light your subject.

For dramatic shadows, lit from the side.

For a scary effect, from above. For romance, lit with candles. In a movie, tone is often conveyed with music—think of the ominous score accompanying the girl swimming in shark-infested waters in Jaws.

She has conflict, surprise, imagery, details, the words she chooses, and the way she arranges them in sentences.

  • It can create interest, or kill it;
  • Make sure your very first sentence establishes the tone you want;
  • But stay away from changing tones within a piece;
  • Like the tone you use when you talk to somebody, tone in writing determines how a reader responds.

Like the tone you use when you talk to somebody, tone in writing determines how a reader responds. If the piece sounds angry, he gets nervous. Thus, the wrong tone can derail an otherwise good piece. You can detect tone problems in your own work simply by noting where your attention wanders as you reread it.

Or, better, by reading it aloud. Some problems with tone are small and can be easily fixed during revision. Others might require a new approach to the piece as a whole. In the first draft you write what people expect you to write—what you expect yourself to write. Now, during your revision, go deeper. Seek out the harder truths.

When you get tired of being nice. Think of the dry, reserved tone in which Joan Didion recalls the anguish of losing her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking. What if she had wailed about her loss? There would be nothing for us readers to do, even if the emotions being reported to us were very sad. If your subject is inherently serious, try taking a lighter approach.

In that form, it might have sold a few thousand copies. The lighter treatment led to sales of hundreds of thousands of copies. Make sure your very first sentence establishes the tone you want. Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.

In one sentence, you know who everybody is. You will choose different tones for different subjects, of course, just as you would dress differently for a date than for an interview. But stay away from changing tones within a piece.

  1. It can create interest, or kill it.
  2. Be in a mood.
  3. You have to back off, calm down, see other points of view, maybe even take some responsibility for whatever happened.
  4. The narrator here, it is safe to say, is not admiring the cunning of her father; the tone suggests she is old enough to worry about the folly of her parents. Other places where the delete key comes in handy.

Notice, by the way, how many genres actually have tone in their names: Focus your revision there. If you reread a piece and decide that nothing works until the second page, why not simply start it there? The delete key is your friend. The novelist Carolyn Chute told Writers Ask: On and on and on, all this junk. But every now and then this dramatic moment happens, so I lift that out and put that aside. And then I write all this junk: Because those are the only strong things.

Careful is right next to it. Other places where the delete key comes in handy: You know how it goes: Stick to the subject at hand. Resist the urge to overtly explain—it can come off as condescending or redundant. Your piece, whatever it is, should be rife with conflict.

If nothing is stopping you from lazing around under the sheets, then you have no problem, and thus the piece has no tension—an essential element in sustaining any tone for the long haul.

Are you one of the many writers who blog? So you must sound like somebody.

  1. In the first draft you write what people expect you to write—what you expect yourself to write.
  2. Make sure your very first sentence establishes the tone you want. Now, during your revision, go deeper.
  3. In memoir or fiction, it comes also from offbeat character details, like this one from the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

This is true with other forms of personal writing, as well. Resist the urge to come off as uncomplicated, reasonable or polite. Note that this is a format where opinion is the point, not a tiresome add-on. Be in a mood. A sad character will notice rotting houses and untended yards; a contented one will see picturesque shacks and gardens in a profuse state of nature.

When adding details to enrich your writing, tone comes from being as specific as possible. In memoir or fiction, it comes also from offbeat character details, like this one from the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: Dad was so sure a posse of federal investigators was on our trail that he smoked his unfiltered cigarettes from the wrong end.

The narrator here, it is safe to say, is not admiring the cunning of her father; the tone suggests she is old enough to worry about the folly of her parents. In these instances, to fix the tone, you have to fix the way you think about a given subject.

You have to back off, calm down, see other points of view, maybe even take some responsibility for whatever happened. When writing about such delicate subjects, you must not let a negative tone take over by ascribing motives to people: You just tell what they did, and let the reader read motive into it.

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You must write with forgiveness, understanding and humor. In some ways, this can be a payoff to examining your tone as you write: You change the writing, and the writing changes you.

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