What is tone?
Tone refers to an author’s use of words and writing style to convey his or her attitude towards a topic. Tone is often defined as what the author feels about the subject. What the reader feels is known as the mood.
Tip: Don’t confuse tone with voice. [Read How Do You Find Your Writing Voice?] Voice can be explained as the author’s personality expressed in writing. Tone = Attitude. Voice = Personality.
Tone (attitude) and voice (personality) create a writing style. You may not be able to alter your personality but you can adjust your attitude. This gives you ways to create writing that affects your audience’s mood. (Click here for examples of tone in a story.)
The mechanics of tone
Tone is conveyed through diction (choice and use of words and phrases), viewpoint, syntax (grammar; how you put words and phrases together), and level of formality. It is the way you express yourself in speech or writing.
How do you find the correct tone?
You can usually find a tone by asking these three questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- Who is my intended audience?
- What do I want the reader to learn, understand, or think about?
In formal writing, your tone should be clear, concise, confident, and courteous. The writing level should be sophisticated, but not pretentious.
In creative writing, your tone is more subjective, but you should always aim to communicate clearly. Genre sometimes determines the tone.
|Absurd||illogical; ridiculous; silly; implausible; foolish|
|Accusatory||suggesting someone has done something wrong, complaining|
|Acerbic||sharp; forthright; biting; hurtful; abrasive; severe|
|Admiring||approving; think highly of; respectful; praising|
|Aggressive||hostile; determined; forceful; argumentative|
|Aggrieved||indignant; annoyed; offended; disgruntled|
|Ambivalent||having mixed feelings; uncertain; in a dilemma; undecided|
|Amused||entertained; diverted; pleased|
|Angry||incensed or enraged; threatening or menacing|
|Animated||full of life or excitement; lively; spirited; impassioned; vibrant|
|Apathetic||showing little interest; lacking concern; indifferent; unemotional|
|Apologetic||full of regret; repentant; remorseful; acknowledging failure|
|Appreciative||grateful; thankful; showing pleasure; enthusiastic|
|Arrogant||pompous; disdainful; overbearing; condescending; vain; scoffing|
|Assertive||self-confident; strong-willed; authoritative; insistent|
|Awestruck||amazed, filled with wonder/awe; reverential|
|Belligerent||hostile; aggressive; combatant|
|Benevolent||sympathetic; tolerant; generous; caring; well meaning|
|Bitter||angry; acrimonious; antagonistic; spiteful; nasty|
|Callous||cruel disregard; unfeeling; uncaring; indifferent; ruthless|
|Candid||truthful, straightforward; honest; unreserved|
|Caustic||making biting, corrosive comments; critical|
|Cautionary||gives warning; raises awareness; reminding|
|Celebratory||praising; pay tribute to; glorify; honour|
|Chatty||informal; lively; conversational; familiar|
|Colloquial||familiar; everyday language; informal; colloquial; casual|
|Comic||humorous; witty; entertaining; diverting|
|Compassionate||sympathetic; empathetic; warm-hearted; tolerant; kind|
|Complex||having many varying characteristics; complicated|
|Compliant||agree or obey rules; acquiescent; flexible; submissive|
|Concerned||worried; anxious; apprehensive|
|Conciliatory||intended to placate or pacify; appeasing|
|Condescending||stooping to the level of one’s inferiors; patronising|
|Confused||unable to think clearly; bewildered; vague|
|Contemptuous||showing contempt; scornful; insolent; mocking|
|Critical||finding fault; disapproving; scathing; criticizing|
|Cruel||causing pain and suffering; unkind; spiteful; severe|
|Curious||wanting to find out more; inquisitive; questioning|
|Cynical||scornful of motives/virtues of others; mocking; sneering|
|Defensive||defending a position; shielding; guarding; watchful|
|Defiant||obstinate; argumentative; defiant; contentious|
|Depressing||sad, melancholic; discouraging; pessimistic|
|Derisive||snide; sarcastic; mocking; dismissive; scornful|
|Detached||aloof; objective; unfeeling; distant|
|Dignified||serious; respectful; formal; proper|
|Diplomatic||tactful; subtle; sensitive; thoughtful|
|Disapproving||displeased; critical; condemnatory|
|Disheartening||discouraging; demoralising; undermining; depressing|
|Disparaging||dismissive; critical; scornful|
|Disappointed||discouraged; unhappy because something has gone wrong|
|Dispassionate||impartial; indifferent; unsentimental; cold; unsympathetic|
|Distressing||heart-breaking; sad; troubling|
|Docile||compliant; submissive; deferential; accommodating|
|Earnest||showing deep sincerity or feeling; serious|
|Egotistical||self-absorbed; selfish; conceited; boastful|
|Empathetic||understanding; kind; sensitive|
|Evasive||ambiguous; cryptic; unclear|
|Excited||emotionally aroused; stirred|
|Farcical||ludicrous; absurd; mocking; humorous and highly improbable|
|Flippant||superficial; glib; shallow; thoughtless; frivolous|
|Forceful||powerful; energetic; confident; assertive|
|Formal||respectful; stilted; factual; following accepted styles/rules|
|Frank||honest; direct; plain; matter-of-fact|
|Gentle||kind; considerate; mild; soft|
|Ghoulish||delighting in the revolting or the loathsome|
|Grim||serious; gloomy; depressing; lacking humour;macabre|
|Gullible||naïve; innocent; ignorant|
|Hard||unfeeling; hard-hearted; unyielding|
|Humorous||amusing; entertaining; playful|
|Hypercritical||unreasonably critical; hair splitting; nitpicking|
|Impartial||unbiased; neutral; objective|
|Impassioned||filled with emotion; ardent|
|Inane||silly; foolish; stupid; nonsensical|
|Incredulous||disbelieving; unconvinced; questioning; suspicious|
|Indignant||annoyed; angry; dissatisfied|
|Informative||instructive; factual; educational|
|Intense||earnest; passionate; concentrated; deeply felt|
|Intimate||familiar; informal; confidential; confessional|
|Ironic||the opposite of what is meant|
|Irreverent||lacking respect for things that are generally taken seriously|
|Jaded||bored; having had too much of the same thing; lack enthusiasm|
|Joyful||positive; optimistic; cheerful; elated|
|Judgmental||critical; finding fault; disparaging|
|Light-Hearted||carefree; relaxed; chatty; humorous|
|Loving||affectionate; showing intense, deep concern|
|Macabre||gruesome; horrifying; frightening|
|Malicious||desiring to harm others or to see others suffer; ill-willed; spiteful|
|Mocking||scornful; ridiculing; making fun of someone|
|Mourning||grieving; lamenting; woeful|
|Naïve||innocent; unsophisticated; immature|
|Narcissistic||self-admiring; selfish; boastful; self-pitying|
|Nasty||unpleasant; unkind; disagreeable; abusive|
|Nostalgic||thinking about the past; wishing for something from the past|
|Objective||without prejudice; without discrimination; fair; based on fact|
|Obsequious||overly obedient and/or submissive; fawning; grovelling|
|Outraged||angered and resentful; furious; extremely angered|
|Outspoken||frank; candid; spoken without reserve|
|Pathetic||expressing pity, sympathy, tenderness|
|Patronising||condescending; scornful; pompous|
|Pensive||reflective; introspective; philosophical; contemplative|
|Persuasive||convincing; eloquent; influential; plausible|
|Pessimistic||seeing the negative side of things|
|Philosophical||theoretical; analytical; rational; logical|
|Playful||full of fun and good spirits; humorous; jesting|
|Pretentious||affected; artificial; grandiose; rhetorical; flashy|
|Resentful||aggrieved; offended; displeased; bitter|
|Restrained||controlled; quiet; unemotional|
|Reverent||showing deep respect and esteem|
|Righteous||morally right and just; guiltless; pious; god-fearing|
|Satirical||making fun to show a weakness; ridiculing; derisive|
|Sarcastic||scornful; mocking; ridiculing|
|Scathing||critical; stinging; unsparing; harsh|
|Scornful||expressing contempt or derision; scathing; dismissive|
|Sensationalistic||provocative; inaccurate; distasteful|
|Sentimental||thinking about feelings, especially when remembering the past|
|Sincere||honest; truthful; earnest|
|Sceptical||disbelieving; unconvinced; doubting|
|Solemn||not funny; in earnest; serious|
|Submissive||compliant; passive; accommodating; obedient|
|Sulking||bad-tempered; grumpy; resentful; sullen|
|Sympathetic||compassionate; understanding of how someone feels|
|Thoughtful||reflective; serious; absorbed|
|Tolerant||open-minded; charitable; patient; sympathetic; lenient|
|Unassuming||modest; self-effacing; restrained|
|Uneasy||worried; uncomfortable; edgy; nervous|
|Urgent||insistent; saying something must be done soon|
|Vindictive||vengeful; spiteful; bitter; unforgiving|
|Virtuous||lawful; righteous; moral; upstanding|
|Whimsical||quaint; playful; mischievous; offbeat|
|Witty||clever; quick-witted; entertaining|
|Wonder||awe-struck; admiring; fascinating|
|World-Weary||bored; cynical; tired|
|Worried||anxious; stressed; fearful|
|Wretched||miserable; despairing; sorrowful; distressed|
Helpful Tip:Finding the correct tone is a matter of practice. Try to write for different audiences. Even if you only want to write novels, it is an apprenticeship of sorts. Write press releases. Write opinion pieces. Write interviews. Write copy. Write a business plan.
The more you write, the better you will become at infusing your work with the nuances needed to create the perfect book. If you want to receive a daily prompt, click here to join our mailing list.
by Amanda Patterson
- 15 Questions Authors Should Ask Characters
- 6 Sub-Plots That Add Style To Your Story
- 7 Choices That Affect A Writer’s Style
- 5 Incredibly Simple Ways To Help Writers Show And Not Tell
- Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language
If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.
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- Posted on 27th June 2014
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Explore: Style, Tone, Voice, Writing Tips from Amanda Patterson
Your behavior while attending church is different from your behavior while hanging out in the back yard with friends, or at least we hope it is. And part of that difference is the difference in language, a difference not just in the words we use but in what we call tone. We also recall being told, when we were very young, not to "use that tone of voice with me, Mister (or Missy, as the case may be)!" Just as the pitch and volume of one's voice carry a difference in tone from street to church, the choice of words and the way we put our sentences together convey a sense of tone in our writing. The tone, in turn, conveys our attitude toward our audience and our subject matter. Are we being frivolous or serious, casual or formal, sweet or stuffy? The choice of a single word can change the tone of a paragraph, even an entire essay. In the first sentence of this paragraph, for example, the phrasal verb "hanging out" is considerably more casual than others we might have chosen: gathering, congregating, assembling.
One difficulty in writing for a course is that it's hard to think of the reader of our essays as an audience. Our instructor might, in fact, be our sole reader, somebody who will pack a pile of papers into a briefcase or backpack and take them home to read on the kitchen table, correcting pen in hand. (Or nowadays, he or she may read them online or take home a stack of floppy discs and read the papers on a computer monitor.) In fact, that person has to read those essays, whether they're good or bad; he or she is even paid to do so.
This is a very limited audience, indeed, and if we aim our essay at that one individual, we have severely limited its appeal. We would be much better off if we could conceive of our essays as being aimed toward a community of readers, the readership, say, of a small-town or neighborhood newspaper. These readers are interested in what we have to say curious, in fact but they're easily distracted; they expect demand, even something that is fresh, honest, imaginative, energetic, without being too zany or offbeat. We don't know exactly who is going to pick up this newspaper, so we need to be on our best behavior; our tone must aim toward being friendly and helpful without being overly casual (and never slangy); if we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we've hit it just right.
One measure of the formality of our language is our use of contractions. The paragraph just before this one has five verb contractions: it's (twice), they're, don't, and we've. We use contractions all the time in casual conversation, of course, and using contractions in our text will convey an informal quality. To elevate the style, eliminate the contractions and write out the verbs: "if we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we have hit it just right." It is a very easy matter to do a search for apostrophes in our text, and it is a very useful exercise, also. First, we can check for any possessives we may have formed incorrectly, but then we can also check for contractions. Remember, there is nothing inherently wrong with contracted verbs; however, they are one hallmark of informality, and your instructor may object to their use. It would be wise to know how your instructor feels about contractions and a looser, informal style before you experiment with their use at least in a paper that you're writing for a grade.
A pleasant informality may be void of elevated language, but it is not an excuse for imprecision or wordiness. Read the section on writing Concise Sentences and review the various means of pruning unnecessary words and clichés.
Here is a paragraph from Mother Jones Magazine from an article which calls upon us to stop using antibiotics haphazardly. Where would you place this paragraph on a continuum of formality to informality, and why?
Media reports have likely made you aware of this problem, but they have neglected the implications. Your brother catches a cold that turns into a sinus infection. His doctor treats him with antibiotics, but the bacteria are resistant to all of them. The infection enters his bloodstream a condition known as septicemia and a few days later, your brother dies. (Septicemia is what killed Muppets creator Jim Henson several years ago.) Or instead of a cold, he has an infected cut that won't heal, or any other common bacterial disease, such as an ear or prostate infection.
Michael Castleman, "Cold Comfort."
And here is a paragraph from Atlantic Monthly from an article declaring that the cultural assumptions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment are current at the end of the millennium. Although you have only four sentences to go on, can you say how this paragraph differs from the paragraph above? Does this difference say something about the audiences of Atlantic Monthly and Mother Jones, respectively? Do you prefer one style to another? Which one feels more like your style?
Governments everywhere are at a loss regarding the best policy for regulating the dwindling forest reserves of the world. Few ethical guidelines have been established from which agreement might be reached, and those are based on an insufficient knowledge of ecology. Even if adequate scientific knowledge were available, we would have little basis for the long-term valuation of forests. The economics of sustainable yield is still a primitive art, and the psychological benefits of natural ecosystems are almost wholly unexplored.
Edward O. Wilson, "Back from Chaos."
If we tried counting contractions for the entire articles from which these paragraphs are taken, we would discover that there is only one contraction a shouldn't in Wilson's article and there are twenty contractions in Castleman's, even though Wilson's article is considerably longer. How do these contractions, or the lack of them, affect your sense of the seriousness of the essays? Visit the web-sites of other well known magazines. (Click HERE for a list of hyperlinks.) Find examples of clearly definable tones that seem consistent throughout an online publication. Test the contraction-count theory and see if it supports your sense of formal versus informal.