Tone and voice … What’s the difference? And how can they help us write appropriately for our audience? With these tools we can address formality and the relationship between reader and writer. They also tell us more about who is writing.
The new Australian Government Style Manual explains.
Tone captures formality, word choice, grammar and viewpoint. It conveys how you feel about the subject. Are you angry, dispassionate or amused?
But how can you achieve a suitable tone? One useful tool is to imagine a situation where the text is being spoken out loud.
A journal or blog entry has similarities to a casual conversation between friends. Slang and idioms might be suitable, while boring, technical language might not.
Think of an academic paper as a formal speech at a conference. Engaging the audience is essential, but personal anecdotes and casual language will seem out of place.
Voice describes the writer’s persona – you personally or your organisation. Voice can be objective and institutional or personal and intimate. Are you an expert, impartial or balanced?
Voice suggests personality where tone suggests attitude to the subject. It’s difficult to adjust your personality, but you can certainly change your attitude.
To address tone, ask questions about your audience. Who are you writing for and what do you want them to understand or feel? To address voice, ask questions about yourself. What kind of person or institution is writing and how would you like to be perceived?
Instead of tone and voice, the previous edition of the Australian Government Style Manual focused on register. Register refers to the style of language used in different situations. This mainly included levels of formality and the writer’s proximity to the reader. The new Style Manual has brought more detail and nuance in its discussion of voice and tone.
Writing with an inappropriate tone can alienate readers and limit readability. The new Style Manual suggests a ‘standard tone’ which uses contractions and personal pronouns but avoids metaphors, idioms and slang. So feel free to directly address readers with ‘you’ and make sure you’re using everyday language.