‘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.

  1. Elevated/Formal — for a highly educated audience. Example: Peruse
  2. Neutral/ Standard — for a well-educated audience. Example: Examine
  3. Neutral/ Informal — for a familiar audience. Example. Look over
  4. Low/Non-standard — for a specific audience. Example: check it out

 

ELEVATED/FORMAL NEUTRAL/STANDARD NEUTRAL/INFORMAL LOW/NON-STANDARD
Peruse Examine Look over Check it out
Notable Outstanding Amazing Awesome
Regrettably Unfortunately Sadly It’s a bummer that …
Excellent First-Rate Top-notch Phat
Review Discuss Talk About Chat
Question Enquire Query Grill
Undistinguished Uninspiring Boring Meh
Deliberate Consider Think About Mull Over
Elect Choose Pick Opt
Endure Tolerate Bear Put up with
Respond Address Answer Take one up with
Conceive Envisage Imagine Cook up
Narcissistic Self-centred Stuck Up Youniversal
Intelligent Smart Brainy All there
Phenomenal Incredible Out-of-this-world Doozie

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:

  1. Why am I writing this?
  2. Who is my target audience?
  3. 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:

Tone Meaning
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
Ardent enthusiastic; passionate
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
Demeaning disrespectful; undignified
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
Direct straightforward; honest
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
Encouraging optimistic; supportive
Enthusiastic excited; energetic
Evasive ambiguous; cryptic; unclear
Excited emotionally aroused; stirred
Facetious inappropriate; flippant
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
Frustrated annoyed; discouraged
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
Humble deferential; modest
Humorous amusing; entertaining; playful
Hypercritical unreasonably critical; hair splitting; nitpicking
Impartial unbiased; neutral; objective
Impassioned filled with emotion; ardent
Imploring pleading; begging
Impressionable trusting; child-like
Inane silly; foolish; stupid; nonsensical
Incensed enraged
Incredulous disbelieving; unconvinced; questioning; suspicious
Indignant annoyed; angry; dissatisfied
Informative instructive; factual; educational
Inspirational encouraging; reassuring
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
Laudatory praising; recommending
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
Mean-Spirited inconsiderate; unsympathetic
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
Negative unhappy, pessimistic
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
Optimistic hopeful; cheerful
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
Pragmatic realistic; sensible
Pretentious affected; artificial; grandiose; rhetorical; flashy
Regretful apologetic; remorseful
Resentful aggrieved; offended; displeased; bitter
Resigned accepting; unhappy
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
Subjective prejudiced; biased
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
Tragic disastrous; calamitous
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

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