Tone and Mood: Why They’re Important in Your Writing

In written composition, the 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.) The tone is also sometimes confused with voice, which can be explained as the author’s personality expressed in writing.

The 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?

The tone depends on these and other questions. In expository or informative writing, the tone should be clear and concise, confident but courteous.

The writing should be sophisticated but not pretentious, taking into account the reader’s familiarity with or expertise in the topic. It should also carry an undertone of cordiality, respect, and, especially in business writing, an engagement in cooperation and mutual benefit.

Tone and Mood in Expository Writing

Expository writing and journalistic writing both place emphasis on details in order of priority. Therefore, 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. This can be achieved through the use of words such as “first,” “primary,” “major,” and “most important,” as well as special formatting techniques like italics or boldface. However, it is essential to exercise restraint when employing these techniques, ensuring they enhance the message without becoming excessive.

Tone and Mood in Creative Writing

In creative writing, the tone is more subjective, but it also requires a focus on communication. The genre itself often determines the tone adopted. Thrillers, for instance, use concise and succinct phrasing, while romances, which encompass both exciting adventures and matters of the heart, tend to be more effusive and expressive. Comedies, on the other hand, exude a buoyant tone.

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.

How Do You Convey Your Tone?

Tone is delivered in syntax and usage, imagery and symbolism, allusion and metaphor, and other literary tools and techniques. However, it is important to note that developing tone is not merely 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.

It 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 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.