(originally published as a guest post on JerryJenkins.com)
If you’re confused about the difference between “voice” and “tone” in writing, you aren’t alone. Many writers conflate the two.
Whether you’re writing a novel, a blog post, an article, or a poem, it’s important to know the difference so you can communicate with readers in a way that resonates.
Your writing voice reflects who you are, your unique personality and character that should flavor everything you write.
Tone is the attitude with which you write it.
So, voice is what you say, and tone is how you say it.
That sounds simple, so let’s dig deeper.
What is Tone in Writing?
We communicate tone when we speak (whether we’re aware of it or not).
Imagine you and I have an appointment and you get caught in traffic and show up half an hour late.
“You always this punctual?” I say with a grin.
My smile sends a clear message—I’m not upset, I’m being sarcastic. That’s tone.
Communicating tone in writing is no different.
Types of Tone in Writing
The list is nearly endless—show me a human emotion, I’ll show you a tone—but here are the basic ones:
While tones can vary with every character and scene, the overall tone of your story must remain consistent to keep from confusing your reader and hindering your message.
Examples of Tone in Literature
Robert Frost begins his poem The Road Not Taken with a hopeful, contemplative tone.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
By the end, he’s switched to reflection and positivity.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In The Old Man and the Sea, his final published work, Ernest Hemingway effects a tone of loneliness, sadness, defeat, and discouragement (at least on the part of the boy).
But, you can also read into what’s not said and detect a tone of courage or expectation on the part of the old man. Who continues to fish day after day when they’ve caught nothing?
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.
It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis writes this passage with a clear tone of self-pity and sadness that shifts to fear.
‘I do think,’ said Shasta, ‘that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me…I was left behind…I was the one who was sent on…I got left out.’ And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.
What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there. It was a horrible shock.
How to Develop Your Writing Tone
Have you ever written something you realized later fell flat? Here’s how to avoid this:
1. Remember your audience.
Every reader matters. Write in a straightforward, friendly manner as if having a conversation. Be real and avoid words that require a dictionary.
2. Layer in details.
Convey tone through descriptions that trigger the theater of your reader’s mind rather that being so specific that you leave nothing to his imagination.
3. Conflict is your friend.
Avoid a story that falls flat by creating what Bridget McNulty calls “an ebb and flow of tension”.
Plunge your main character into terrible trouble from the get-go and spend the rest of your story having him try to remedy the situation.
Tone can serve as one of the most important elements in writing because it gives life to a story.