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April 2, 2011 / sarahlambert34

Tone in writing equals tonnes of possibilities.

by Sarah Lambert

What is tone ?

Take any text : novels, poems, newspaper articles, scientific journals, comedy, etc, for sure you will find that apart from their content, these texts have something unique in their style. According to the dictionary, tone is the general quality or style of something. It is also the quality of a sound or of somebody’s voice. In some ways, there are as many tones as there are authors. However, writers make choices to express themselves or something in a certain manner. Tone is both transmitted by what is said and how it is said.

Why do we use tones ?

So, why do we use tones ? I have already mentionned that tones were used to express oneself or something in a certain manner. A comparison with music and the way a composer processes when writing scores can be made with texts and the act of writing. For example, a composer who wants to express something sad, may use specific combinations of notes, particular rythms and instruments. In the case of a writer, he or she will probably use emotional adjectives, images and metaphors, as well as short or long sentences. Also different tones will be used to express a variety of emotions and tones will have different effects on readers.

Example of tone in Manthropology

To be more concrete, let’s look at one example. In one chapter of his book Manthropology, Peter McAllister describes metrosexual men. In this piece of writing, the author adopts a funny, even more quirky tone to illustrate the portrait of this group of individuals. Already, the quirkyness of the tone is included in the name of the piece : Manthropology. In this case, McAllister plays with words. He also varies the rythm of the sentences, uses abbreviations, and examples. Describing this category of males, McAllister refers to David Beckham as the ‘‘iconic status […] of metrosexuality’’. Calling him Becks, McAllister creates an accomplice relationship with his readers. Obviously, the tone of this text is humouristic. Humour is used to do the portrayal of one particular group. In this case, it makes the text a lot more catchy and interesting for the reader.

How can we determine which tone to use ?

Depending on the genre, the audience, the topic, and very often the publication, the tone of a text will be different and should be appropriate. Imagine an article about an aeroplane crash and the death of its passengers written in a very ironic fashion. As a reader how would you feel about that ? If we consider the topic of a text, we may see that some of them are more susceptible to be written in a lighter tone than others. For example, have a look at the ABC science website The bugs bite back and Radiation from airport scanners ‘‘very low’’ are two scientific articles adopting two different tones in relation to what they say. We can see once more that the title is often the first indicator of the tone of a text.


We have briefly seen what tone is, and why and how we use a particular one. Knowing a bit more about it, does not mean however, that choosing the right tone is an easy thing. Depending on several factors such as, publication, topic, audience, and genre, it is probable that you will need time and practice to find yours.



McAllister, P. (2009). Beauty. In Manthropology. (pp 191-196). Australia. Hachette.

Kirkman, J. (2005) Good Style : Writing for Science and Technology. (chapter 15. Tone : in hard copy and in on-screen text). Hoboken : Taylor & Francis. [ EBL. Access record ].

What is tone exactly and how do you find it in stories ? (n.d) Retrieved March 31, 2011 from CliffNotes :,article-8021.html



Leave a Comment
  1. rohanmsmith / Apr 4 2011 9:16 am

    Hi Sarah,

    Firstly I think you did a great job of writing the blog post.

    I really like the way you’ve chunked your information into small blocks, with clear and concise headings. These blocks only take 30 seconds to read, which retains the readers’ attention and assists in understanding the points you are making. Additionally, I like the play on words in the title – very clever.

    I think you have defined tone accurately, which is a somewhat difficult thing to do, so well done on that. If I had one criticism on the opening block, I think you could be a bit more specific. It feels like in keeping things general by using words such as ‘something’, you have lost some clarity. I would suggest being more specific to the form of tone you are referring to, in this case tone in writing.

    In the second block, the comparison to a composer is excellent. This helps the reader to understand an example of both what tone is and how tone can be used. My only criticism for this block is that perhaps it could be more concise. I think you would have been better off launching straight into the comparison and subsequent example.

    The third and fourth blocks are both excellent. I like the way you’ve shown how the title of an article, book or even chapter often indicates tone. You’ve provided three excellent examples to support your point, which cover a range of tones in writing. If I had to offer some criticism, and I’m being really picky here, I feel you could elaborate on specifically how the McAllister text uses humour. I’m not sure it’s enough to just say “obviously, the tone of this text is humoristic”. But I’ll stress that I think I’m being overly picky here – I think this is written very well.

    Your conclusion is clear and concise, and reminds the reader of the points you’ve made in your blog post. Excellent summary! ☺

    Overall great job and well written, I really enjoyed reading your ideas about tone in writing. I imagine it was not the easiest topic to write, however I think you’ve done a great job.

    • Sarah Lambert / Apr 6 2011 6:16 am

      Hi Rohan,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I feel a bit overwhelmed by all your congratulations though.

      I particulary liked the topic and I need to confess that as a non-scientist person with previous studies in litterature, I think it wasn’t the most difficult to write about.

      You are right, I should have been more preicse in defining tone in the first paragraph. I tried to keep things general in order to explain them later but it might have not been the best strategy.

      Also, in the third paragraph, I could have given more exmples of McAllister’s humouristic tone. The title Manthropology is a good one. Another is when the author creates his own composed adjectives. For instance, talking about Mark Walberg, McAllister describes him as an ”athletic-rapper-turned-actor”.

      Thanks again for your constructive suggestions.



  2. Madeleine Gordon / Apr 5 2011 6:57 am

    Hi Sarah!

    I really liked your summary but I also think that tone can change with different works of the same author. That is I believe that there are many more tones than there are authors. Take Shakespeare as an example. The tone of McBeth is very different to that of Romeo and Juliet which is also contrasting to the tone of A Midsummer Nights Dream.

    Also I have read different novels where the tone seems to be the same in both. Do you think this is possible? or are they actually two slightly different ‘tones’?


  3. Sarah Lambert / Apr 5 2011 11:56 pm

    Hi Madeleine,

    Thanks for your comment. I think you are totally right in pointing the fact that a same author can use different tones in his/her works. Shakespeare is without doubt a great example.

    Writing is a wonderful means of expression and how writers use their skills allows them to write in such different ways. Definitely, tones can vary according to the genre, for example, of a piece of writing. A comedy and a tragedy might have two very different tones.
    However, even if the tone is different from one work to another, the style of an author may be often recognized. Also, I should have differentiate more tone and style. In my opinion, tone is a part of the latter.

    When you say that you read different novels where the tone seems to be similar, were the novels from the same author?



    • Madeleine gordon / Apr 6 2011 8:59 am

      Hi again!

      Yes I did mean to say from the same author. I realized that after I had sent it : ) Also I agree with your idea that tone is part of style even when the same authors works have different tones you can generally tell they come from the same source. I was trying to think why though. Any ideas?


  4. habasabah / Apr 10 2011 1:16 pm

    Hi Sarah!

    I’d firstly like to comment on the structure of your blog post. It is very clear and concise; there is good use of headings which allows it to flow, rather than just one big chunk of information (which is visually unpleasant!). We all know how difficult it is to stick to a word limit, especially when there is so much to say about the topic, so being selective is hard – so I think you’ve done well with all of that.

    For the actual content, the statement, “In some ways there are as many tones as there are authors” – made me stop and think ‘hang on….is that true?’…and go on to explore it further. There are obviously many examples in support of this, though less to prove otherwise. It’s true that usually in reading different books of the same author; you can see that there is a recurring tone and style. For example, if I use a “film” as a text, then I’ll use Quentin Tarantino as an example – as a film director he seems to have his own ‘trademark’ style where there is a sense of humour in all his films that provokes laughter from the audience, but there isn’t anything funny happening.

    It’s so easy to support the statement about one author, one tone – but I’m sure this is not always true. I know that some writers can take on a number of different tones and this is possibly a skill learnt over time and with experience of writing (or directing or whatever). It could also be that these particular writers have many influences – like other writers for example – or that they are simply a person of many sides! In saying that, I had a hard time trying to find an example that proves otherwise, like with the film director example I gave before – I couldn’t really find a film director with differing styles (it’s hard to find a specific film director, where I am familiar with all of their films, but there have definitely been moments for me when I’ve seen a movie, found out the director, asked or searched for other movies they’ve directed and then thought, wow that’s a contrast!).

    So I found your blog very engaging – as I spent a good deal of time looking into it. You did well in getting a reaction from the reader.


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