Tones in Writing: The Ultimate Guide for Fiction and Nonfiction

Whether we know it or not, we all use certain tones when we write. For some, the tone in writing will be as natural as the tone of voice they choose when speaking to a person in real life. For others, it will take a little more deliberation. 

Tone is one of many tools used in writing. And mastering the use of tone is a part of becoming the best writer you can be. That's just what we'll be discussing in this article on tones in writing. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What tone in writing is.
  2. How tone differs from voice.
  3. 11 examples of tones used in writing.

What is Tone?

Tone in writing is very similar to tone in speaking. It conveys attitude, context, and meaning. If you're sad, your tone will reflect this in your speech. If you're happy, your voice tone will be different than if you're sad or scared or trying to tell a joke. It's the same in writing. 

Tone in writing is a combination of factors: word choice, rhythm, sentence structure, punctuation, use of italics and capital letters, and grammar. 

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Tone vs Voice

Tone and voice are two sides of the same page, but they are different in ways that are important to keep in mind. Just as tone in writing is similar to tone in speaking, voice in writing is similar to voice in speaking. There's no way you can change your unique voice (even when you're doing an impression, it's still your voice), but you can change your tone depending on the situation. 

Now, things get a little more complicated in fiction writing because you can mimic another writer's voice (ghostwriters do this all the time). Voice can also change slightly depending on the needs of a piece of fiction. 

But for the purposes of this article on tone, you can just think of your writing voice as the one you've naturally developed during your time as a writer. It's your default writing voice, that you modify with tone depending on the needs of the situation

Why is Tone Important?

If you've ever dealt with someone whose words were as polite as could be but whose tone was telling a completely different story, you know the importance of tone. It's just as powerful when used in writing as it is in speaking. And it goes a long way to making the reader feel the emotions the author wants them to feel.

Perhaps the best way to emphasize the importance of tone is in everyday communications. Whether it be a brief email to a co-worker or a text message to a family member, getting the right tone is important. 

Sending a condolence email to an acquaintance will likely have a somber and formal tone, whereas sending the same kind of message to someone you know well will likely be somber but informal, allowing it to be more personal and heartfelt. 

You pick the tone by thinking about what mood you want to convey and how you want your writing to make the reader feel. 

Tone in Nonfiction

In nonfiction writing, the tone needs to match the intended audience. A funny memoir will have a different overall tone than a technical manual aimed at an audience of scientists. And while the tone may change slightly through the course of the nonfiction book, it probably won't vary much. 

Most nonfiction is written with an authoritative tone because the author wants to convey that they know what they're talking about. Books on spirituality are usually written with an inspirational tone. Self-help is often written with an encouraging tone. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to read a self-help book with a pessimistic tone. 

Of course, you don’t have to just stick to one tone. You can be authoritative and encouraging at the same time, for example. These tones go well together. It would be more difficult (and not wise) to use two contradictory tones at the same time. 

Tone in Fiction

Things get a little trickier when it comes to tone in fiction. This is because it gets kind of mixed up with the narrator's point of view, the author's voice, and the point-of-view character's mood or tone. 

Some novels are written with a very strong narrator, while others are not. Sometimes, a story calls for the narrator to be assertive, while in others, the narrator is nothing more than a stenographer writing the events down—often in a neutral tone.

Take, for example, an excerpt from Good Omens, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman:

It wasn't a dark and stormy night. 

It should have been, but that's the weather for you. For every mad scientist who's had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is finished and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who've sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.

But don't let the fog (with rain later, temperatures dropping to around forty-five degrees) give anyone a false sense of security. Just because it's a mild night doesn't mean that dark forces aren't abroad. They're abroad all the time. They're everywhere.” 

This novel is written in omniscient third-person narration. This means that the narrator isn't a character. But the comedic and witty tone still comes through. It's half the charm of the book. You might say it has the perfect tone for the book. 

But the same tone wouldn't be appropriate for a Jason Bourne-type thriller. 

Tone Changes in Fiction are Common

The tone in fiction can change depending on the point-of-view character. In those chapters where the POV character is the antagonist, the tone might be aggressive or creepy, depending on what's happening in the scene. 

Then, in the next section, there could be a different tone. If things are going well for the main character, it might be an optimistic tone. But when things start going bad and it looks like all is lost, it would be appropriate to craft a depressing tone. 

Of course, there's also the tone that's conveyed through dialogue. This is usually a much simpler matter for most authors because it’s a matter of imitating the tones of in-person conversations.

Finding and Using the Appropriate Tone

While this is not an exhaustive list, the following tones (in no particular order) are common in different kinds of writing.

Formal Tone

Often used in academic writing and professional correspondence, the formal tone is marked by a lack of slang terms, contractions, and first-person pronouns. It is respectful, to the point, and grammatically correct

Informal Tone

The informal tone writing style is similar to how you would speak to a friend or close family member. Essentially, it's a conversational tone in which contractions, slang, and first-person pronouns are expected. However, you still generally want to stick to grammar conventions and spell everything correctly if you're writing an informal piece for a wide audience

Assertive Tone

An assertive tone is one that conveys confidence. For this tone, you want to keep away from words that come across as ambivalent in certain contexts. These include “might,” “may,” “could,” and “perhaps,” to name a few. An assertive tone is often used in nonfiction pieces written by subject matter experts.  

Friendly Tone

To craft a friendly tone, think about how you would talk to or tell a story to a close friend. Although it can be used in a formal piece of writing, it's most commonly used with informal writing. It's characterized by light, happy words that convey familiarity and optimism.  

Informative Tone

An informative tone is most often used in news articles. This can be a neutral tone because the sole purpose of it is to convey information. The language is concise, and adverbs are not often used. Michael Connelly, who was a reporter before he started writing fiction, often uses an informative tone in his novels. 

Cooperative/ Inspirational Tone

A cooperative or inspirational tone is most often seen in pieces that call for action. This could be a company memo in everyday communications, or it could be the tone of an entire book calling for societal change. Racial justice and climate change nonfiction books often strike a cooperative tone in their books—particularly near the end. But this tone isn't only found in nonfiction. It's also common in romance novels and uplifting fiction books. 

Enthusiastic Tone

An enthusiastic tone is one marked by excitement and positive emotion. First-person novels written in some romance and cozy mystery genres will often have this kind of tone throughout. A sure way to identify an enthusiastic tone is through the use of exclamation points. But you don't need this type of punctuation to get the point across. Word choice and voice are also great ways to craft this tone.  

Aggressive Tone

An aggressive tone is characterized by clipped sentences, strong words, and demanding language. If you've ever read a comments section on the internet, you've no doubt seen this tone in action. It's not common in formal writing, but it can be used to great effect in fiction writing, especially during scenes where the antagonist is the POV character

Suspenseful Tone

In fiction, writing suspense is a very useful skill to have. But it's not just the words the author uses here, but also the words he or she doesn't use. Suspense is dulled when the writing is bogged down in unimportant details. Like an aggressive tone, a suspenseful tone can be characterized by limited details, powerful words, and short sentences. 

Comedic/Irreverent Tone

There are several types of comedy, and not every reader will find the same things funny. That said, striking an irreverent tone is often good for romantic comedies, cozy mysteries, and even to lighten the mood in many other types of stories. Offhand remarks, corny jokes, and breaking the fourth wall can all be considered characteristics of a comedic tone. 

Curious Tone

A curious tone is often found at different points in mysteries. In fact, one of the reasons readers love a good mystery is because they're curious about whodunit or how the cop will catch the killer. To see a curious tone done well, read any Sherlock Holmes story. As a stand-in for the audience, John Watson is always a step or two behind Holmes, and he expresses his curiosity through his narration. 

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Maintain an Overall Tone

When determining your desired tone, keep your genre in mind. While tone can shift depending on what's happening from scene to scene, there should be a clear overall tone throughout the story. For example, a horror book wouldn't have a predominantly enthusiastic and happy tone because that's not what readers are looking for when they pick up a horror novel. 

That said, there is some room for experimentation and subverting expectations. But anytime you give readers something other than what they expect, you risk driving them away before the subversion or experiment can pay off. 

Tones in Writing: Conclusion

You always hear professional writers talking about how reading a lot is an essential ingredient for writing well. And tone is a great example of this. Most writers instinctively know the tone they're going for because they've read enough to internalize it. But if there's an issue with the book or story that you can't quite put your finger on, tone is something to look at. 

Hopefully, this article will help you craft the correct writing tone and style for your next novel, nonfiction book, or short story!

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