Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?

“Your voice is too loud; tone it down!”

I heard that line more than once when I was growing up. But tone accomplishes a lot more than identifying how loud or how soft a sound is. For example, muscles are toned, or not, and writing — fiction or non-fiction — has a tone.

More than one reviewer or critique partner has criticized a story because the main character is whiny or uncaring or distant or proud. These are generally traits a reader doesn’t admire and therefore finds disturbing in a novel. Who wants to spend 300-400 pages with someone you don’t really like? Or worse, who annoys you?

But how does the author convey such tones? What exactly is a tone in writing? The word generally refers to the quality of sound. In writing this quality is generated by a variety of things — the voice of the piece, the style, the mood. Behind all these are word choice, sentence structure, and content.

Well, that narrows it down, doesn’t it! 🙄

Of course not, because tone is actually the sum of all these aspects of writing.

The term identifies the quality of a piece of writing. Is there lilting humor dancing behind each word? Is there sultry suggestiveness? Perhaps a touch of haughty grandeur? Or maybe bitter grumbling?

Authors may not always realize their writing carries such subliminal messages, but tone can make or break a piece. As Brian Klems wrote in his Writer’s Digest article 7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone,’ “the wrong tone can derail an otherwise good piece.”

Often times, without conscious effort, writers adapt specific tones for specific occasions. In a note to a friend, we are casual and warm. In a job application we are formal and business-like. No one told us to adjust our tone; we did it without thinking because we realized the occasion required it.

Perhaps the best way to hear the tone of a piece is to read it aloud and actually hear it. If someone reads the story, article, or chapter with inflection, how does it sound? With which character does the reader use a grumpy voice? or a saucy voice? Does a light-hearted character actually sound light-hearted? Or just as serious as his sad and serious great-aunt?

Does the article for the magazine about antiques have the same elegant seriousness as the other pieces they usually publish? Is the article for the children’s magazine friendly and welcoming? Is the devotional personal and honest?

Clearly, when we write articles or blog posts, short stories or novels, we can improve our writing if we pay attention to tone and create the one best suited to the occasion.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at some ways to make tone work for the writer. The first thing to keep in mind is to establish tone from the start and maintain it consistently throughout. To do so, the writer must decide what tone is most appropriate. One way to do this is to imagine who would enjoy reading the piece. Is this reader dressed formally, heading for a business meeting? Is she sitting in an easy chair with a cup of coffee?

Once you have in mind whether you’re coming into a person’s home to share a much needed break or if you’re adding value to a planned business transaction, you’ll have a better idea what tone you want to adopt.

Often times, finding the right tone comes from imitating the right tone. If a particular story is folksy, with a homespun tone, and that’s the exact tone you want for your story, then write a scene for their book, aiming to match the character voice, description, sentence structure, and so on. This kind of imitation exercise will teach you how to create that tone when you write your own story.

There are other important aspects about tone that we’ll look at next time.


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