Style and Tone in Writing: What They Mean and Why it Matters

20 Oct 2020

STYLE AND TONE IN WRITING: WHAT THEY MEAN AND WHY IT MATTERS

As a writer, you hear the terms style and tone bandied about quite a bit, and frequently together.

But are they something you need to pay attention to? Or do they just happen when you write?

You know that all writing has some form of tone and style, but what do the terms really mean? Aren’t they essentially the same thing?

While both are ways to express yourself in your writing, style and tone are distinctly different from each other. And they each serve an essential purpose in your writing.

Here’s what you need to know about tone and style and why every writer needs to use them conscientiously. 

Style

Regardless of whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, your writing style is the way in which you tell your story. It’s the nuts and bolts of language.

Do you like long, flowing sentences? Maybe you prefer short sentences with simple, easy-to-understand words. The writing tools you choose—such as the words, sentence structure, and grammar—create your style. 

Think about some of the authors or different genres you’ve read. Typically, each genre will have some style similarities, but each author will put his or her own touch on it. 

For instance, both Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens are authors of literary fiction, but compare these two lines:

“‘Hello,’ I said. When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me.” – from A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway.

“The freshness of her beauty was indeed gone, but its indescribable majesty and its indescribable charm remained. Those attractions in it I had seen before; what I had never seen before was the saddened softened lift of the once proud eyes; what I had never felt before was the friendly touch of the once insensible hand.” – from Great Expectations by Dickens. 

Each passage is a description of the narrator seeing a woman with whom he is smitten.

Hemingway’s is three sentences while Dickens’ is only two, but as a whole, Dickens’ is much longer. He even uses two semicolons in the second sentence.

Hemingway uses action words while Dickens dives into descriptive phrases. The way in which each of these writers uses language to tell their story is their style. So, why does that matter?

On a basic level, you want to be certain that your writing style fits the genre you’re writing. There’s always room for flexibility, but a press release should not read like a romance novel or a history of the Civil War.

Readers have expectations and veering too far off the established path can cause them to lose interest. Or, even worse, it could make it so your book never gets published at all.

Find the appropriate style for the genre you are writing, and make it your own.

Tone

In some ways, tone is less technical than style. It is the attitude the writer takes towards the subject or even the reader.

It can be formal or academic. It can also be friendly or even humorous. What is appropriate may vary with the type of writing being done. 

Here are two passages from essays on motherhood. They are both talking about essentially the same topic, but they come across very differently:

“In the weeks after my first son was born, I squandered hours of precious sleep leaning over his bassinet to check that he was still breathing. I researched potential dangers that seemed to grow into monstrous reality by the blue light of my smartphone.” from “How Motherhood Changes the Brain” by Chelsea Conaboy published by theweek.com.

“A couple of years ago my daughter began climbing into our bed in the morning. I liked it. I love a morning snuggle, the promise of the day whispered in scratchy voices and the weight of my kids’ bodies warm against my side.” from “Motherhood” by Amy Flory published on funnyisfamily.com.

While both authors are writing about motherhood, the tone in Conaboy’s passage is decidedly more ominous. It’s filled with worry. Flory’s piece, on the other hand, oozes affection and comfortable joy.

Their styles are not significantly different, but their tones set very different moods for the reader. 

So, why does your tone matter? Because it affects how your readers receive your message. The wrong tone can make any story or message fall flat— or worse!

Your tone sets the mood for your book.

Would you enjoy a romance novel written with an authoritative and distant tone? Or, how about a true-crime book written in a fun or even silly tone?

It is possible to be “tone deaf” in your writing. Just as in public speaking, you want to speak to your specific audience when you write.

Using Style and Tone in Your Writing

You’ve heard it before: it’s not just what you say but also how you say it. When you combine style and tone, what you have is your distinctive writing voice.

Here are a couple of tips for using style and tone in your writing:

  • Be intentional – Do some research and figure out what styles and tones can work effectively for your genre. How do you want your work to come across to the reader? Choose your style and tone before you even begin. Remember, you want to find the appropriate style and tone and then make them your own.
  • Be consistent – Make sure your writing stays true to those choices or make a full change if needed, but don’t flip flop. This involves reading your work closely after you have finished, to ensure your style and tone stays consistent throughout. Inconsistencies in style and tone can leave the reader confused or annoyed.

Know What’s Hot 

The rules for style and tone can change with time.

There was a time when books about history were always written in a very formal, journalistic style, for example. Then, a couple of decades ago, the idea of creative non-fiction took hold. Even history books started to read more like novels.

It’s important to know what’s “hot” right now because that establishes the reader’s expectations.

That being said, you don’t want to be unduly influenced by it, either, and try to write in a style or tone that is not comfortable for you.

Put your finger on the current pulse and then align your skills and your project with that.

Author
Tyler Omoth 
Tyler grew up knowing he wanted to be a writer. In 2005 he landed his first professional writing role as a radio advertising copywriter. Since then he has penned over 70 books for children as well as blog posts, white papers, press releases, greeting cards and articles. He's even managed to get a few short stories and poems published. He's written for just about every kind of business out there and loves the challenge of finding the right voice to fit each client, even if it means matching their existing voice. He believes that the best writing strikes an emotional chord, even if it's just a 30-second advertisement. He is Hubspot certified for content marketing and knows how to create content that is SEO friendly. A Minnesota transplant living in Tampa, FL, when he's not writing Tyler is probably watching baseball or embracing the chaos of life with his wife, Mary, and twin toddlers, Gavin and Rachel.

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