What Tone Are You Aiming For?

by Carla Douglas

Image by benhusmann (CC BY 2.0)

Most of us have had the experience of beginning a book and then rejecting it after reading only a few pages. Why? Frequently, it’s because of the author’s tone. Something bothers us about it – it may be hard to put a finger on, but we find we are uncomfortable with it, we don’t take it seriously or we may even be offended by it. When a writer doesn’t get the tone right, it’s often because he hasn’t given enough thought to its context – how the tone fits with the purpose and audience of his writing.
Tone is usually defined as the author’s attitude toward the subject, characters or audience. Tone can be anything from deadly serious (think a CPR manual) to absurdly playful (think The Cat in the Hat), but it is always created through the author’s use of language – whether the author is aware of this or not. The same definition of tone applies to both fiction and nonfiction, but for writers, how to achieve a desired tone depends on the genre, too. Because it’s more straightforward, I’ll discuss nonfiction first.
In nonfiction, the author addresses the reader directly. If you think of writing as a conversation, then the words you choose will depend on who is listening (your audience) and how you hope they will respond to your message (your purpose).
Try this. Before you begin writing, answer these questions:
Who is your audience?
You may not know who your readers are. Who do you hope they are? Are they older than you? Younger than you? By how many years? Are they your peers? Students? Employees? Colleagues? Experts? Are they knowledgeable about your topic? Eager to learn more? Reluctant to try? Are they smart? Not so smart? Rich? Well travelled? Silly? Important? Describe them. You need to know who they are if you want to engage them in conversation.
Who are you?
And who are you in relation to your readers? Teacher? Boss? Expert? Colleague? Peer? Adviser? How do they perceive you and how do you hope they’ll perceive you? Authority on the subject? Expert? Newbie? Insider with secrets to share? Explorer? Confidant? Supportive friend? Create a profile. Pay special attention to how you are (and how you’d like to be) perceived by your readers. Hint: If they think you’re looking down on them, they’ll bolt!
What is your purpose?
What do you hope your writing will do? Persuade couch potatoes to change their ways? Motivate employees? Support clients? Entertain readers? Or do you want readers to buy your product? Understand a concept? Agree with you on an issue? Be clear about this before you start writing. It will help you stay focused.
If it helps, put your ideas down on paper. Here’s an example:
This sketch shows the relationship between you, your audience, your purpose and the tone of your writing. Writing it down puts what you want to say into context and makes it easier to choose language that fits the situation. And clearly identifying the audience and purpose helps you draw conclusions about the tone you’re aiming for.
Next week I’ll talk about how tone is typically used in nonfiction, how to choose language to suit the tone you want and what happens when tone goes over the top. Remember: In writing, it’s always all about the reader. Stay tuned!

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