‘What is tone?’ Maybe it’s in the air this year but a lot of people have been asking me this question. The short answer is attitude. This is a particular view or feeling you show on a subject.
Whatever your view/feeling, it’s going to come through your writing and colour your words in a particular shade of tonality — sincere/devious, witty/inane, caring/indifferent, cold/warm, melancholy/joyful, affectionate/callous, aggressive/considerate, the list goes on and you can view it down below.
Even if there’s no feeling coming through you to your words, then that’s still an attitude. And it will show in your writing as lacklustre, vapid, mediocre, flat, dull or bland.
Attitude comes with the job, so it’s important to make it work for you. Now attitude should not be confused with personality — which is ‘the voice’.
Rule of Thumb: Tone = Attitude; Voice = Personality.
You’ve heard of ‘brand personality’ in the selling department and ‘characterisation’ in the telling department; both are the same thing. A personality like George Clooney can be angry in one scene, and affectionate in another. Same personality, different attitude. A brand like Apple (which TBWA Chiat/Day created in Steve Jobs’ own image — creative, fearless and far-sighted) can come across as arrogant in one story, and inspiring in another. Same persona, different attitude.
People might read your words, but they feel your attitude.
These are the three sides that inform us of the writer’s attitude. And the variations on each are many. In terms of the subject, you may be angry, amused, excited, unimpressed or one hundred and one other shades of feeling about the topic. Choose the right attitude before you start writing so you can be sure your reader responds accordingly.
When it comes to attitude toward the reader, you need to be hyper-sensitive about how you come across. Most of the time, we are having a dialogue with our reader and so a friendly, warmhearted and helpful attitude is the preferred default. Within those three tonalities the possibilities are almost endless — admiring, appreciative, candid, thoughtful, encouraging, humble, just to mention a few. But if you want to treat your readers as intellectual inferiors, then you’re guaranteed unqualified success with an impersonal, indifferent, lecturing approach. And the possibilities? Acerbic, hostile, indignant, pompous, condescending, demeaning, unsympathetic, cold, glib and so on to the inevitable bitter end.
Finally, there’s your attitude toward you — the writer writing. As I said in the Rule of Thumb section, copywriters are mainly writing on behalf of another. But if, for example, you are writing a blog post, an editorial or fiction, then you are the voice. You may regard yourself very seriously or with amused detachment; you may be the highly rational, feisty first person or the highly emotional, ardent type; you may be humble and self-deprecating or awe-struck and enthusiastic. You may be any combination of these or any others from the A–Z of Attitudes list below.
Attitude is not just a feeling but also diction.
Now that we’ve understood attitude as the feeling behind the words, the other main factor in tone is diction — the very words you choose. Depending on your reader, you may choose slang words of a particular culture; colloquial expressions of a specific demography and/or geography; jargon that’s characteristic of a particular profession, trade or pursuit. In short, the right language (another word for diction) can help the reader connect with the piece and author. Here are four levels (altitudes) of diction to help you on your way to making the right connection.
- Elevated/Formal — for a highly educated audience. Example: Peruse
- Neutral/ Standard — for a well-educated audience. Example: Examine
- Neutral/ Informal — for a familiar audience. Example. Look over
- Low/Non-standard — for a specific audience. Example: check it out
|Peruse||Examine||Look over||Check it out|
|Regrettably||Unfortunately||Sadly||It’s a bummer that …|
|Deliberate||Consider||Think About||Mull Over|
|Endure||Tolerate||Bear||Put up with|
|Respond||Address||Answer||Take one up with|
As you can see (and feel), each of these words has its own attitude and creates a certain atmosphere referred to here as “mood”. When choosing an atmospheric level, first be clear who it is you’re writing to. A particular audience will have particular expectations about the level of diction you talk to them in. A banker will put money on “unanticipated” while a rapper will bling to “stiplificated”.
Secondly, be clear of your purpose. There are four purposes in writing —to inform, to persuade, to instruct and to entertain (plus combinations of each). Purpose will inform you of the most appropriate level of diction.
Don’t you write to me in that tone of voice!
Just like the tone you use when talking to somebody face-to-face, tone in writing determines how your reader responds. If your piece sounds aggressive, the reader gets nervous. If it’s dull and clichéd, the reader goes zzzzzzzzzz. If it’s insightful and witty, the reader settles in for a satisfying read.
The most reliable way to detect tone problems is by reading it aloud. Better still, imagine you’re speaking the words to your particular reader like they were staring you in the face. The sound of your voice will immediately tell you where your words sit on the attitude spectrum. And your visualisation will show you the reaction of your reader.
Unlike journalists, copywriters usually write on behalf of different brands and/or personalities. So we need to be master actors like Jeffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer) and Mathew McConaughey (Gold). You need to be able to move in and out of personalities to affect character and express a particular attitude to set the right mood.
To guide you on your way, I’ve curated a list of tones so as to open you to the possibilities beyond the bland, the blander and the blandissimo.
But before anything, start with these three questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- Who is my target audience?
- What do I want the reader’s intended response to be?
Your answers will supply you with sufficient emotional intelligence to accurately tune your tone in the right key.
The Writer’s A–Z of Attitudinal Tonalities.
Given all the variables, the possibilities of tone to subject, reader and self are almost endless. Choose mindfully … and moodfully. You can start by perusing/examining/looking over/checking out this glossary of attitudes curated by Amanda Patterson, founder of Writers Write:
|Absurd||illogical; ridiculous; silly; implausible; foolish|
|Accusatory||suggesting someone has done something wrong, complaining|
|Acerbic||sharp; forthright; biting; hurtful; abrasive; severe|
|Admiring||approving; think highly of; respectful; praising|
|Aggressive||hostile; determined; forceful; argumentative|
|Aggrieved||indignant; annoyed; offended; disgruntled|
|Ambivalent||having mixed feelings; uncertain; in a dilemma; undecided|
|Amused||entertained; diverted; pleased|
|Angry||incensed or enraged; threatening or menacing|
|Animated||full of life or excitement; lively; spirited; impassioned; vibrant|
|Apathetic||showing little interest; lacking concern; indifferent; unemotional|
|Apologetic||full of regret; repentant; remorseful; acknowledging failure|
|Appreciative||grateful; thankful; showing pleasure; enthusiastic|
|Arrogant||pompous; disdainful; overbearing; condescending; vain; scoffing|
|Assertive||self-confident; strong-willed; authoritative; insistent|
|Awestruck||amazed, filled with wonder/awe; reverential|
|Belligerent||hostile; aggressive; combatant|
|Benevolent||sympathetic; tolerant; generous; caring; well meaning|
|Bitter||angry; acrimonious; antagonistic; spiteful; nasty|
|Callous||cruel disregard; unfeeling; uncaring; indifferent; ruthless|
|Candid||truthful, straightforward; honest; unreserved|
|Caustic||making biting, corrosive comments; critical|
|Cautionary||gives warning; raises awareness; reminding|
|Celebratory||praising; pay tribute to; glorify; honour|
|Chatty||informal; lively; conversational; familiar|
|Colloquial||familiar; everyday language; informal; colloquial; casual|
|Comic||humorous; witty; entertaining; diverting|
|Compassionate||sympathetic; empathetic; warm-hearted; tolerant; kind|
|Complex||having many varying characteristics; complicated|
|Compliant||agree or obey rules; acquiescent; flexible; submissive|
|Concerned||worried; anxious; apprehensive|
|Conciliatory||intended to placate or pacify; appeasing|
|Condescending||stooping to the level of one’s inferiors; patronising|
|Confused||unable to think clearly; bewildered; vague|
|Contemptuous||showing contempt; scornful; insolent; mocking|
|Critical||finding fault; disapproving; scathing; criticizing|
|Cruel||causing pain and suffering; unkind; spiteful; severe|
|Curious||wanting to find out more; inquisitive; questioning|
|Cynical||scornful of motives/virtues of others; mocking; sneering|
|Defensive||defending a position; shielding; guarding; watchful|
|Defiant||obstinate; argumentative; defiant; contentious|
|Depressing||sad, melancholic; discouraging; pessimistic|
|Derisive||snide; sarcastic; mocking; dismissive; scornful|
|Detached||aloof; objective; unfeeling; distant|
|Dignified||serious; respectful; formal; proper|
|Diplomatic||tactful; subtle; sensitive; thoughtful|
|Disapproving||displeased; critical; condemnatory|
|Disheartening||discouraging; demoralising; undermining; depressing|
|Disparaging||dismissive; critical; scornful|
|Disappointed||discouraged; unhappy because something has gone wrong|
|Dispassionate||impartial; indifferent; unsentimental; cold; unsympathetic|
|Distressing||heart-breaking; sad; troubling|
|Docile||compliant; submissive; deferential; accommodating|
|Earnest||showing deep sincerity or feeling; serious|
|Egotistical||self-absorbed; selfish; conceited; boastful|
|Empathetic||understanding; kind; sensitive|
|Evasive||ambiguous; cryptic; unclear|
|Excited||emotionally aroused; stirred|
|Farcical||ludicrous; absurd; mocking; humorous and highly improbable|
|Flippant||superficial; glib; shallow; thoughtless; frivolous|
|Forceful||powerful; energetic; confident; assertive|
|Formal||respectful; stilted; factual; following accepted styles/rules|
|Frank||honest; direct; plain; matter-of-fact|
|Gentle||kind; considerate; mild; soft|
|Ghoulish||delighting in the revolting or the loathsome|
|Grim||serious; gloomy; depressing; lacking humour;macabre|
|Gullible||naïve; innocent; ignorant|
|Hard||unfeeling; hard-hearted; unyielding|
|Humorous||amusing; entertaining; playful|
|Hypercritical||unreasonably critical; hair splitting; nitpicking|
|Impartial||unbiased; neutral; objective|
|Impassioned||filled with emotion; ardent|
|Inane||silly; foolish; stupid; nonsensical|
|Incredulous||disbelieving; unconvinced; questioning; suspicious|
|Indignant||annoyed; angry; dissatisfied|
|Informative||instructive; factual; educational|
|Intense||earnest; passionate; concentrated; deeply felt|
|Intimate||familiar; informal; confidential; confessional|
|Ironic||the opposite of what is meant|
|Irreverent||lacking respect for things that are generally taken seriously|
|Jaded||bored; having had too much of the same thing; lack enthusiasm|
|Joyful||positive; optimistic; cheerful; elated|
|Judgmental||critical; finding fault; disparaging|
|Light-Hearted||carefree; relaxed; chatty; humorous|
|Loving||affectionate; showing intense, deep concern|
|Macabre||gruesome; horrifying; frightening|
|Malicious||desiring to harm others or to see others suffer; ill-willed; spiteful|
|Mocking||scornful; ridiculing; making fun of someone|
|Mourning||grieving; lamenting; woeful|
|Naïve||innocent; unsophisticated; immature|
|Narcissistic||self-admiring; selfish; boastful; self-pitying|
|Nasty||unpleasant; unkind; disagreeable; abusive|
|Nostalgic||thinking about the past; wishing for something from the past|
|Objective||without prejudice; without discrimination; fair; based on fact|
|Obsequious||overly obedient and/or submissive; fawning; grovelling|
|Outraged||angered and resentful; furious; extremely angered|
|Outspoken||frank; candid; spoken without reserve|
|Pathetic||expressing pity, sympathy, tenderness|
|Patronising||condescending; scornful; pompous|
|Pensive||reflective; introspective; philosophical; contemplative|
|Persuasive||convincing; eloquent; influential; plausible|
|Pessimistic||seeing the negative side of things|
|Philosophical||theoretical; analytical; rational; logical|
|Playful||full of fun and good spirits; humorous; jesting|
|Pretentious||affected; artificial; grandiose; rhetorical; flashy|
|Resentful||aggrieved; offended; displeased; bitter|
|Restrained||controlled; quiet; unemotional|
|Reverent||showing deep respect and esteem|
|Righteous||morally right and just; guiltless; pious; god-fearing|
|Satirical||making fun to show a weakness; ridiculing; derisive|
|Sarcastic||scornful; mocking; ridiculing|
|Scathing||critical; stinging; unsparing; harsh|
|Scornful||expressing contempt or derision; scathing; dismissive|
|Sensationalistic||provocative; inaccurate; distasteful|
|Sentimental||thinking about feelings, especially when remembering the past|
|Sincere||honest; truthful; earnesta|
|Sceptical||disbelieving; unconvinced; doubting|
|Solemn||not funny; in earnest; serious|
|Submissive||compliant; passive; accommodating; obedient|
|Sulking||bad-tempered; grumpy; resentful; sullen|
|Sympathetic||compassionate; understanding of how someone feels|
|Thoughtful||reflective; serious; absorbed|
|Tolerant||open-minded; charitable; patient; sympathetic; lenient|
|Unassuming||modest; self-effacing; restrained|
|Uneasy||worried; uncomfortable; edgy; nervous|
|Urgent||insistent; saying something must be done soon|
|Vindictive||vengeful; spiteful; bitter; unforgiving|
|Virtuous||lawful; righteous; moral; upstanding|
|Whimsical||quaint; playful; mischievous; offbeat|
|Witty||clever; quick-witted; entertaining|
|Wonder||awe-struck; admiring; fascinating|
|World-Weary||bored; cynical; tired|
|Worried||anxious; stressed; fearful|
|Wretched||miserable; despairing; sorrowful; distressed|