If you're confused about the difference between tone and voice when it comes to your writing, Dana Sitar is here to explain and to share how they can both be used more skillfully.
They have distinct effects on your writing, and knowing the difference can help you understand how to write well for your audience.
Like with speaking, voice is something you take with you regardless of the context; your voice might be high, deep, soft, gruff or (sigh) shrill.
Your tone is what you adjust based on the message you want to share; maybe you’re angry, kind, soothing or demanding.
I work with non-fiction writing, so I usually mean your tone and voice. If you write fiction, think about these for your narrator — they’re the one who needs to connect with the audience. For non-fiction, shape your tone and voice based on your brand and message; for fiction think about the norms for your genre.
Why You Should Care about Tone and Voice
These two elements are central to communicating with your audience. Readers understand your words differently depending on how you say them.
For example, my writing voice is pretty casual and simple. I’m not a good fit to write about the stock market for Forbes, but I can comfortably and appropriately demystify basic personal finance for The Penny Hoarder.
Still, if I write about how to dig yourself out of dire medical debt, my tone will be somber compared with the snarky tone I might use to write about how to add wiggle room to your budget by Marie-Kondo-ing your overstuffed closet of designer clothes.
Swapping either one for the other would make the piece difficult for the right reader to connect with.
What Is Your Writing Voice?
Like your speaking voice, your writing voice projects who you are. It’s the personality you put into your writing. You can develop and tweak it over time, but, basically, your voice is you, and you carry it throughout your writing projects.
Your voice helps the reader understand who you are. Are you their friend or their professor? Are you like them, or are you coming into their world with a different perspective? Are you an amateur or an expert?
Before knowing your message, readers will detect your voice, draw conclusions about you as the author and determine whether they’ll read your writing.
How to Develop Your Writing Voice
New writers are often baffled by the idea of developing a writing voice, but we all do it. In fact, before you’ve “developed” a voice, you have one. It’s just probably not unique; it’s probably a cookie-cutter academic or journalistic voice you learned to pass classes or satisfy an editor.
Techniques for breaking that mold and developing your unique voice could fill their own post — or book. But here are a few basic ideas:
Journal. Write by hand on paper regularly to get your raw thoughts on paper with no goals or audience to shape them. Try Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise if you need a kick of motivation.
Follow writing prompts. They force you to apply your own spin and can help you see styles that show up in your writing regardless of the subject.
Read a lot. It’ll expose you to tons of authors’ voices and show you norms in your genre. Reading out-of-the-box authors lets you see unique possibilities — especially helpful if you’re stuck in that academic voice.
Do some ghostwriting. It lets you try on various voices — and get paid! It stretches your muscles and helps you see what fits.
Define your brand. If you’re early in your career, you don’t have to stick to it, but play around with some personal branding exercises (I love this one from Michael Port) to figure out how to approach your writing.
What Is the Tone of Your Writing?
Tone is the attitude you convey in a piece of writing.
While voice lets readers know who you are, your tone can let them know you understand — and care — who they are.
The way you write about a subject gives the reader a sense of your relationship to it and why you’re writing about it. It can also signal that you get the reader’s relationship to the subject and what they want to achieve by reading this piece.
I could spend a lot of effort to be funny in a blog post, for example, which could make it entertaining and convey my unique personality. But if I spend too much time making jokes and not enough clearly addressing the topic in the headline, the reader will leave the piece annoyed and disappointed — if they read far enough to care.
How (and Why) to Adjust Your Tone to Different Pieces of Writing
As with any communication, readers will understand your words differently depending on how you say them. Because of that, the tone you choose for your writing should depend on what you want your readers to get out of it.
Readers might misinterpret a sarcastic narrator in a romance novel, because they expect the tone in that genre to be sweet or sexy. They might not get your point in an op-ed if you’re too formal, because that tone doesn’t make room for your feelings on the matter.
To adjust your tone to a piece of writing, start with your unique voice, and ask yourself:
What is the reader’s relationship to the subject? If they’re experts in the field, for example, consider going formal. If they’re onlookers, a friendly tone could make them comfortable with a complicated subject.
What does the reader want to get out of this piece? Your tone should fit the seriousness (or triviality) of that goal.
What tone is typical in this kind of writing? Readers come to your writing with expectations. If your tone isn’t typical for the genre, they should know why.
In what context will the reader see this piece? When, where and how the reader sees your writing affects how they react to it, so set your tone to get your story or message across with that in mind.
Are Your Voice and Tone Right for What You’re Writing?
If you’re ever unsure whether your voice is a fit for what you’re writing or whether you’re setting the wrong tone, always think about the reader.
What are their goals and expectations? Your voice and tone should put them in the right state of mind to pursue those goals and show them you understand those expectations.
Have you given thought to the tone and voice in your writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Dana Sitar is an editor at The Penny Hoarder, a columnist for Inc. and a freelancer with bylines including Slate, the New York Times and HuffPost. Her free mini ebook, How to Write Anything (Well) gives you the tools you need to understand who your readers (really) are and what it takes to write for them.
[Laughing woman image courtesy Jamie Brown and Unsplash.]