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How to Create and Understand ‘Tone’

What is ‘tone’ and how to create it when writing? Well, the easiest way to think of it is like a ‘vibe’ or impression that a piece of writing gives off as you read it. You might have had a parent say to you ‘I don’t like your tone, young lady!’ or had someone ‘take an angry tone’ with you at some point in your life. This gives you a bit of insight into what ‘tone’ really means: it’s kind of implied or suggested, rather than explicit and direct. It’s hidden, not obvious. It’s almost musical at times.

During the speech, the tone can be easy to interpret — a person might be whiney and bored and take that type of tone with you. Or they might be excited and use a happy, enthusiastic tone. Written language is just the same… except it’s a little harder at first to distinguish what kind of feeling or attitude lies behind the words because we only read them instead of hearing them. In summary, “tone” means the writer’s attitude towards their subject: how they feel about what they’re writing on.

If you’re here because you’re studying English Language, bear in mind that it is almost impossible to get an A or A* grade on most exam boards without a good understanding of tone and style. 

This page is tailored towards students at KS3/GCSE / IGCSE / AS and A Level (8th-12th Grade). However, it’s useful for anyone studying English and Writing at any intermediate or advanced level, particularly with the following exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, CCEA, CIE / Cambridge, OCR, WJEC / Eduqas.


Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full Advanced Descriptive Writing course.  

Having trouble understanding and creating ‘Style’ in Fiction and Nonfiction? Check this article for more help with it!


Tone

  • The writer’s attitude towards the subject.
  • To do with the writer or narrator’s personality — a way of showing the character of the person behind the story or nonfiction piece.
  • For fiction, the tone can be tied to the narrator of the story, and therefore different from the writer themselves. However, some writers often use an omniscient narrator, in which case the narrative voice is usually similar to their own voice. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, writes in a voice similar to his own by using a candid, philosophical tone with a sparse prose style:

“How little we know of what there is to know. I wish that I were going to live a long time instead of going to die today because I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think than in all other time. I’d like to be an old man to really know. I wonder if you keep on learning or if there is only a certain amount each man can understand. I thought I knew so many things that I know nothing of. I wish there was more time.”

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls

Words to describe Tone:

  • Absurd
  • Forceful
  • Hostile
  • Respectful
  • Laudatory
  • Disgruntled
  • Aggressive
  • Accusatory
  • Passionate
  • Personal
  • Witty
  • Sardonic
  • Scathing
  • Defiant
  • Lugubrious
  • Egotistical
  • Derisive
  • Flippant
  • Ambiguous
  • Impartial
  • Gloomy
  • Irreverent
  • Jaded
  • Narcissistic
  • Philosophical
  • Menacing
  • Remorseful
  • Indifferent
  • Apologetic
  • Lively
  • Enthusiastic
  • Pompous
  • Assertive
  • Candid
  • Formal
  • Sympathetic
  • Insolent
  • Inquisitive
  • Melancholic
  • Macabre
  • Diplomatic
  • Earnest
  • Assertive
  • Effusive
  • Didactic
  • Farcical
  • Ironic
  • Malicious
  • Wistful
  • Pensive
  • Bitter
  • Condescending
  • Spiteful
  • Callous
  • Ruthless
  • Celebratory
  • Critical
  • Honest
  • Humourous
  • Worried
  • Apprehensive
  • Mocking
  • Cynical
  • Skeptical
  • Chipper
  • Aloof
  • Optimistic
  • Pessimistic
  • Energetic
  • Informative
  • Incredulous
  • Inspirational
  • Judgmental
  • Nostalgic
  • Naive

WRITING TASKS:

  1. Learn all of the words above — make a note of any that suit you and your preferred writing tone(s).
  2. Choose 3 tones from the list above. Try to write a paragraph for each word that creates a sense of the correct tone. Use a mixture of fiction and nonfiction paragraphs to get a feeling for how to adapt your tone to suit the text type.
  3. Read the example below. What kind of tone and style do you think it is trying to express? Use two PEE paragraphs of analysis to explain your answer, one for tone and another for style.

EXAMPLE:

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

FINAL TIPS FOR CREATING A GOOD TONE + STYLE

  • Avoid circumlocution (saying something in a long-winded/roundabout or unnecessarily complicated way).
  • Adjectives and adverbs create extra detail and description.
  • BUT an interesting noun or verb is even better.
  • Avoid negative phrasing unless it’s completely necessary.
  • Lots of techniques e.g. simile, metaphor, alliteration, anaphora, repetition — a range of techniques creates a very specific style.
  • Be logical and precise about your points/ideas (be specific, not general)
  • Stay on topic / be relevant to your question or purpose.
  • Use active voice most of the time e.g. I wrote the essay (active) / the essay was written by me (passive).
  • Use a range of sentence types and develop a specific style in regards to sentence structure.
  • Coordinating conjunctions help you group important/connected ideas together (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) — these show ideas of equal importance.
  • Subordinating conjunctions show ideas of different important — main ideas and supporting detail (because, although, once, while, when, where, before, after, etc) — helps to stop your writing being boring or too simplistic.
  • Stick to one overall grammatical and structural style.
  • Use rhetorical techniques to be more persuasive / enhance your structure e.g. parallelism.

Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full English Language, Literature, Grammar, and Writing courses here.

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