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Tips for tone

One of the things we talk a lot about is tone. I see it broadly as how the writer portrays the message he is trying to send to the reader. It usually has a consistent style running through it that sets the stage for the narrative flow of the book. It can be dark, condescending, or quiet. Upbeat, authoritative, or funny. It’s sort of like when you talk with someone and you can tell from their tone what kind of mood they’re in. When you’re reading a book, the writer sends that same message but with their words instead of their voice and facial expression, and without those more obvious cues, it can be very challenging to get it just right.

For fiction as well as nonfiction, a writing sample that shows the reader what the tone of the book will be is a very valuable part of the reading process. For agents, it’s essential that a project we are trying to sell has a tone that hits the right marks. You can have an interesting untapped concept that never gets off the ground if the tone is off (for example, who wants to read about a new fascinating groundbreaking medical advance if the doctor describing it is a pompous, unlikeable narrator?), or on the other side a book idea that might not be obvious, but the sample writing hits the right tonal elements and convinces the reader it’s worth the endeavor (think something like Tuesdays with Morrie).

I found this piece on tone from Writer’s Digest that speaks to this topic in a way that offers some guidelines worth noting. The examples, like the Jeannette Walls one in point 6, are helpful to illustrate how the concepts translate to the page.

There is something quite subjective about when a writer gets tone right, or wrong. Getting feedback from readers is a good way to educate yourself about how your work is being perceived. You might think the tone of your work is pitch-perfect, but others might think it’s cloying, or whiny, so it’s still important to work it through, and if necessary, break down the elements that might help to get the tone just right.

How do you feel tone affects your work, and are there any tips on tone that you apply to your writing that you’d like to share? One of my clients reads her middle grade works-in-progress to her kids to see how they react, and if they like it, she knows the tone (among other things) is working!

2 Responses to Tips for tone

  1. MS says:

    Awesome post, Stacey! Tone will make us or break us, that’s for sure. Everyone’s been told at one time or another to just “be yourself” but easier said than done for a writer.

    More topics like this, please! Many thanks!!

  2. You mention tone being a way we try to convey message to readers, but I think conveying a message is where you have to be most careful and cautious of your tone. It’s really easy to sound preachy or forceful if you’re trying to make your readers believe something, and that tone may turn readers against you more than the arguments, story, etc.

    One thing that helps me figure out if my sentences are flowing nicely is to read them aloud at different speeds. On occasion, this has helped me figure out tone issues as well, like if a sentence was too forceful for the scene or too weak in its voice or too didactic.

    That’s a great article, and will be very useful. Thanks for linking!

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