Often when we feel something is missing from a piece of writing, the key lies in examining the tone.  Tone is one of the most overlooked elements of writing. It can create interest, or kill it.

Tone has many terms—mood, style, voice, cadence, inflection, all meaning much the same thing

If you were a photographer, tone would be the way you light your subject. A writer doesn’t have a soundtrack or a strobe light to build the effect – only conflict, surprise, imagery, details, and words. Tone in writing determines how a reader responds. If the piece sounds angry, he gets nervous. Wry and knowing, he settles in for an enjoyable read. Dull, he leaves it on the train, half read. The wrong tone can derail an otherwise good piece.

When you’re ready to revise a piece, try reading it to someone else, or asking someone to read it to you. You won’t have to search for awkward or boring or whiny parts—you’ll hear them. Here’s how to revise your work so that it resonates.


1. Avoid the Predictable

Seek out the harder truths. In the second, third, fourth draft you will write something unexpected. If you’re having a hard time distancing yourself from the raw emotion of a personal subject, this may be a sign that you need to let time do its magic work.

If your subject is inherently serious, try taking a lighter approach.

2. Keep Tone Consistent

Make sure your very first sentence establishes the tone you want. Take for example the opening line of “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara:

Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.

In one sentence, you know who everybody is. Not only do you want to read on, but you want to know what else she’s written so you can get that, too.

Different tones are necessary for different subjects, of course, just as you dress differently for a date than for an interview. But stay away from changing tones within a piece.  Read your work looking for places where the tone fades or shifts. Focus your revision there.

3. Cut Ruthlessly

If you reread a piece and decide that nothing works until the second page, why not start it there? The delete key is your best friend. Read your work looking for places where your writing wanes. Boring is bad. Careful is right next to it. When it comes to tone, don’t try to fix the boring parts—toss them. You can’t fix boring.

Use he delete key comes on:

  • Off-topic tangents.
  • Overemphasis on themes.

4. Let Tension Sustain Tone.

Your piece should be rife with conflict. It’s not enough to write an essay about how much you like to spend the day in bed. If nothing is stopping you from lazing around under the sheets, then you have no problem, and thus the piece has no tension—an essential element.

5. Use Your Voice.

If you’re expressing opinions, express them!  Look for opportunities to bring a human voice into your work – your voice. There’s more sense of a human behind the words “I had a breast cut off,” than “I had a mastectomy.”

6. Tone in Details and Descriptions.

Consider the difference between ‘in October’ and ‘under an October sky’.  A sad character will notice rotting houses and untended yards; a contented one will see picturesque shacks and gardens in a profuse state of nature.

When adding details to enrich your writing, tone comes from being as specific as possible. Change ‘My husband committed suicide’ to ‘My husband gassed himself in the Austrian Alps’.

In memoir or fiction, it comes also from offbeat character details, like this one from the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls:

Dad was so sure a posse of federal investigators was on our trail that he smoked his unfiltered cigarettes from the wrong end. That way, he explained, he burned up the brand name, and if the people who were tracking us looked in his ashtray, they’d find unidentifiable butts instead of Pall Malls that could be traced to him.

The narrator is not admiring the cunning of her father; the tone suggests she is old enough to worry about the folly of her parents.

7. Recognize Built-in Problems With Tone.

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. Not what you are feeling! When writing about such delicate subjects, you must not let a negative tone take over by ascribing motives to people: just tell what they did, and let the reader read motive into it. You must write with forgiveness, understanding, and humor. You change the writing, and the writing changes you. Don’t be afraid to scrap a project that you discover has inherent problems with tone. You’ll be a better writer for it.

Unleash the novel inside you

with compelling characters,

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and fine-tuned prose.

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“Linda has published sixteen books. She blogs about the publishing world, posts useful tips on the challenges a writer faces, including marketing and promoting your work, how to build your online platform, how to get reviews and how to self-publish. She has mentored many authors and edited their work.” 

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