Tag Archives: tone

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.



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Tone That Works Against You

Tone may create a sense of foreboding or hope, intellectual intrigue or down-to-earth homeboy common sense

As we established in “Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?” the tone of a piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, refers to its quality — the sum of voice, mood, sentence structure, word choice, and more. These various components work together to create a sense of foreboding or hope, intellectual intrigue or down-to-earth homeboy common sense.

In many respects, tone is the answer to What did you think of the article (or chapter or story)? If a reader answers helpful or depressing or funny or scary, he has identified the tone of the piece.

We established in the previous article that determining tone is an appropriate first step for a writer wishing to make the best use of this device, but it comes with a necessary caution: some tones work against the author.

In his article “7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone’ “ Brian A. Klems illustrates this point with a hypothetical article about someone who has lost his job. Initially this subject might seem timely, considering the current state of the economy. However, the content can lose its appeal if the writer presents his material with an off-putting tone.

He might, for instance, use an oh-woe-is-me, why-don’t-things-ever-work-out-for-me tenor — the tone a victim of circumstances might use. Readers may care about an injustice, but they don’t often care for the I’m-a-victim tone.

Complaining, whining, self-righteousness, revenge, hubris, pushiness — these are some of the tones that readers tend to flee from, not gravitate to.

Is a writer, then, to present only the happy, hopeful side of every situation? Actually, no. A second important thing to remember about tone is that readers desire authenticity. Consequently, if circumstances have been unjust, pretending that they are not, kills interest in a story or article.

    My boss propositioned me, and when I turned him down, he fired me, but I’m sure we just had a simple misunderstanding. I’d be happy to work for him again and have no problem recommending my old company to all my friends.

That response to a wrong does not come across as genuine and therefore does not serve the story. Artificially cheerful or forgiving or hopeful creates an artificial tone that many readers won’t tolerate for long.

How, then, should a writer approach difficult subject matter? One way is with humor. Satire, irony, drollery, exaggeration — all can take the edge off criticism. Stand-up comedians have mastered the use of humor as a way to address difficult topics.

For those not inclined to use humor, Klems gives some helpful advice:

In these instances, to fix the tone, you have to fix the way you think about a given subject. You have to back off, calm down, see other points of view, maybe even take some responsibility for whatever happened. When writing about such delicate subjects, you must not let a negative tone take over by ascribing motives to people: You just tell what they did, and let the reader read motive into it.

Let’s look at these points a little closer. Back off. Sometimes an issue can be so important to a writer that he becomes pushy in his approach. Rather than voicing an opinion, he begins to lecture his readers.

    You have no right to destroy the environment, to strip the next generation of the elements of the world that you enjoyed. You have no right to put my children at risk by your selfish, wasteful ways.

Such an approach to an environmental issue might accomplish the opposite of what the writer desires because of his forceful, condemning tone. Better if he would back off and state facts rather than emotion-laced accusations.

Calm down. Someone might think it’s impossible to back off when you feel so passionate about a subject. Which is why a writer also needs to calm down. Passions run high in most controversial subjects, but passion rarely wins arguments because the other side is probably just as passionate.

See other points of view. Here’s the key to creating a winsome tone. When a writer presents more than one perspective — and this is true in fiction as well as non-fiction — the reader is then free to interact with the content rather than with the author’s forceful or emotional presentation of the content.

I’ve seen more than one online discussion, for example, turn away from the subject of the original article and to the way commenters are talking to one another. The negative tone becomes the new issue rather than the original content.

Take some responsibility for whatever happened. I have one friend who is a master at deflecting negative blog comments simply by starting her response with, You’re probably right to say that I’m … or I’m sorry that I offended you when I said …

The writer of the article about the unfair boss can also take responsibility without excusing inexcusable behavior. She might say, for example, something like, I overlooked the early warning signs and should have acted sooner.

In fiction the main character must take action rather than simply reacting to what happens to him or around him. He must be the agent, not the victim.

Finally, do not ascribe motives to people. In the paragraph above in which the writer is in lecture mode, the final shot implies motive: “You have no right to put my children at risk by your selfish, wasteful ways.” The key word is “selfish.” The author ascribed selfishness to everyone who approaches the environmental issue he’s addressing in a way that disagrees with his view. This statement leaves no room for intellectual or spiritual differences or even the lack of adequate education on the part of those who disagree. Instead, all those in opposition are simply selfish.

Novelists must avoid the same problem with their characters in a slightly different way. Characters must be motivated, but the novelist must create believable motives true to a particular character, not a general group. Otherwise the characters will be little more than stick figures masquerading as portraits of real people.

In summary, when a writer considers tone, he must avoid producing one that will turn readers off. At the same time, however, he must be authentic. An artificial tone is as damaging as a negative one. Both work against writers.

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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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