Readers Are Not Tone Deaf

I don’t imagine that readers in general think about the tone of a piece of fiction or non-fiction, and yet clearly they are affected.

In one blog tour in which I participated, a number of reviewers said something similar: I didn’t like the book as much as I thought because the main character was so whiny. Translation in writing terms: I didn’t like the tone.

Simply put, readers are not tone deaf. Whether or not they can identify the tone of an article or story, they pick up on it and are enticed or repelled by it.

In the previous two articles in this series, “Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?” and “Tone That Works Against You”, we’ve established that the writer should determine in advance what tone is appropriate for the piece he is writing, that he should be consistent in his tone from start to finish, that some tones need to be avoided because they are off-putting, and that an authentic approach to content will create a winsome tone.

There are several additional aspects of tone to keep in mind. First, don’t be afraid to let your voice come through, particularly when you’re writing a personal piece such as a blog post. Brian Klems in his Writer’s Digest article “7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone,’ “ said, “[In your blog posts] you must sound like somebody. This is true with other forms of personal writing, as well. Resist the urge to come off as uncomplicated, reasonable or polite. If you’re expressing opinions, express them!”

I would suggest that in today’s confrontational society, adopting a polite tone might actually be the best way to “sound like somebody” because it will set you apart from the vast majority of people communicating on blogs or social media. The same is true in magazine articles and memoirs. While an author needs to sound authoritative, that does not mean he needs to be arrogant or intransigent when someone takes an opposing view.

In fiction, unless the author is writing in an omniscient voice, readers should “hear” the characters. Consequently, writers create tone in a less obvious way, which leads to the next point, applicable for all forms of writing.

Details help establish tone. Does a character look at a street down which he’s walking and see dirty stains on the sidewalk and a discarded bottle in the gutter, or does he see the flowers blooming in the planter and the brilliant blue sky?

Most scenes have both pluses and minuses. The details a writer chooses to emphasize helps create the tone.

Here’s an illustration — a community reporter writing about the scene after a game-winning touchdown.

Paragraph one.

    As the boys in blue jumped into the air, then raced for their star wide receiver cradling the football in the end zone, their coaches thrust their arms high. One by one the players sprinted to the sideline where their head coach greeted each, shaking their hands or giving them high fives.

Paragraph two.

    As the referee signaled touchdown, the gray-clad boys lowered their heads and shuffled toward the sideline, their hands on their hips. Their coach flung his clipboard to the ground and stalked toward the locker room.

The writer reporting on this game does not need to specify which team won and which lost. The details create the appropriate tone and reveal which is which.

In conclusion, readers may not be tone deaf, but they can’t “hear” what isn’t there. Writers would do well to give their audience something to “listen to” in their articles, stories, novels, or blog posts. A little tone goes a long way.



Filed under Tone

4 responses to “Readers Are Not Tone Deaf

  1. What a good reminder. I’m prepping for NaNoWriMo right now, and the last thing I want is a whiny heroine! 🙂

  2. Hi, Cynthia, thanks for your comment. I agree — starting out thinking about the tone your protag gives off makes rewrites so much easier.

    I learned the hard way, unfortunately. 🙄

    Hope you have a great NaNo experience.


  3. Good article, thanks. I often suggest that poets read their poems aloud, especially as they revise, but as a writer in all genres, I read aloud every manuscript of mine as it progresses, so I can hear if everything sounds right. Doesn’t matter if it’s a poem, novel, or encyclopedia, the tone needs to fit the subject and story.

  4. Thanks, Mary. I agree — reading our work aloud helps us in so many ways. Having someone else read it to us can also be beneficial. What ever works, I think, to help us identify whether or not the tone of the piece fits the subject. I appreciate your input!


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