In Writing, Tone Is the Author’s Attitude

By Mark Nichol

In written composition, tone is often defined as what the author (rather than the reader) feels about the subject. (What the reader feels about it, by contrast, is referred to as the mood.) Tone is also sometimes confused with voice, which can be explained as the author’s personality expressed in writing.

Tone is established when the author answers a few basic questions about the purpose of the writing:

  • Why am I writing this?
  • Who am I writing it to?
  • What do I want the readers to learn, understand, or think about?

Tone depends on these and other questions. In expository, or informative, writing, tone should be clear and concise, confident but courteous. The writing level should be sophisticated but not pretentious, based on the reader’s familiarity with or expertise in the topic, and should carry an undertone of cordiality, respect, and, especially in business writing, an engagement in cooperation and mutual benefit.

Expository writing shares with journalistic writing an emphasis on details in order of priority, so writers should not only organize their compositions to reflect what they believe is most important for readers to know but also use phrasing and formatting that cues readers about the most pertinent information — words like first, primary, major, and “most important,” and special type like italics or boldface, but employ both techniques with restraint.

In creative writing, tone is more subjective, but it also requires focus on communication. The genre often determines the tone — thrillers use tight, lean phrasing, romances (hearty adventures as well as adventures of the heart) tend to be more effusive and expressive, comedies more buoyant, and so on. Some writing guides suggest that if you’re unsure about what tone to adopt for fiction, you visualize the book as a film — doesn’t everybody do that anyway these days? — and imagine what emotions or feelings its musical soundtrack would convey.

Tone is delivered in the form of syntax and usage, in imagery and symbolism, allusion and metaphor, and other literary tools and techniques, but that shouldn’t imply that developing tone is a technical enterprise that involves a checklist. Just as with mastering your writing voice (while being flexible enough to adapt it to a particular project), adopting a certain tone depends on these and many other qualitative factors.

Tone can also be compared to differing attitudes of human behavior — the difference, for instance, in how you behave at work, at church, at a party, and so on.

Tone and voice are two features of writing that go hand in hand to create the style for a piece of writing. The attitude and the personality — two other ways to describe these qualities — could also be said to blend into a flavor of writing. Whatever analogy you use, make a conscious decision about tone based on the purpose, the audience, and the desired outcome of your work.

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7 Responses to “In Writing, Tone Is the Author’s Attitude”

  • money

    ei, thanks for this very information article about writing… 😛

  • Craig Jacobs

    Since this a website whose purpose is helping people improve their writing skills, I feel that you should refrain from ending your sentences with prepositions and use the relative pronoun (who/whom/which) correctly.

    This is something of which the majority of English speakers are unaware. Perhaps this can be the topic of a future article?

    Sincerely,
    Craig Jacobs

  • Naomi

    A website “whose purpose is”, Craig? Since when is a website a person? Perhaps your grammar also needs improvement.

  • Brenda

    Okay, the AUTHORS Tone expresses their feelings,mood,or attitude. Say”Class I have an important paper for you,”said Ms.Cunningham. You could either be lighthearted,serious,or it could be a happy mood. For the example right up there what king of tone is Ms.Cunningham using. Try not to look at the answer at the bottom

    Tone she is using: Serious,or Lighthearted

  • Kylie

    Actually, Craig’s grammar was correct.

    Naomi, your first sentence doesn’t seem to be grammatically correct. Maybe you should fix that before a high school student corrects you. Oh wait, too late!

    Don’t worry Craig, I’m here to back you up!

  • Amazing Blair

    Hi Mark,
    Some examples would have been good, to help understand the meaning and usage of tone and to differentiate tone from voice.

    I’d love to see a sentence or two showing a change in tone, and then another set showing a change in voice. Thanks.

  • Larry Jarenden

    Tone and message are two different things. The tone is spoken about but the message of the story can be extremely different. It can be mean’t to be speaking of anger,love,sadness,etc.

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