Finding the Right Tone for Your Story
We’ve talked about “voice” now it is time to meet its twin sister, “tone.” If you are writing for publication, or for a specific publication, no matter what the genre, and you strike a tone that is too different, or off, your piece might not fly. Each outlet has an audience it wants to appeal to, and a tone it takes in addressing it. If you dream of writing articles for a women’s magazine or blog, the tone is going to be different from what is required of a men’s magazine such as ESPN or Sports Illustrated, or even GQ. But dig a little deeper and you will find that out of ten women’s magazines, each will have a different way it shapes the story—its tone. And there is a difference between stories in the men’s magazines.
It shows up in broadcast. NPR, if you listen carefully, has its own sensibilities. As does CNN. If you are going to try to place your work there, understand the tone and attitude. Here’s another way of thinking about it. Let’s say you write novels. The lighthearted tone of a story written about a nanny in New York is a different story with a different tone than a dark mystery with no humor, or a court procedural, with very tight and fast paced dialogue. The tone of a science fiction story has elements that differentiate it from a multi-generational saga.
What goes into tone? Your writer’s voice is an important part of tone. But don’t ignore tools like the quotes you use, the places you choose to take us in your stories, and the way you use language throughout the story. The selection of specific anecdotes can help shape a story and its tone. The pacing of dialogue help to set the tone of a scene. As the writer, you get to use each strategically to get the tone you want to tell the story in the way you want.
So how do you go about shaping a story’s tone? Study the way the publication you are targeting is doing it. Do your homework. Do they use a lot of academic experts as sources in order to set a tone of authority? Do they use “real people” stories to illustrate the topic at hand?
And the best time to think about how you will approach tone is not when you start researching and writing the story. You want to do it when you write your story pitch. Your pitch letter to an editor tells a lot about how you want to set the tone of an article. It is a delicate balance. You might have a perfect story to tell, but an editor might not be able to give you the assignment because your tone and approach is not the right fit.
The same is true for essays. Let’s say you want to write an essay about grieving and loss. You send it to a publication that takes stories about loss. But the editor sends you a nice rejection. Why? Because you wrote a wonderful and sweet essay on losing your best friend. And you missed the part of your homework that would have shown you that this particular outlet really wants pieces with an edgier tone. They aren’t serving up any sweet stories at all. In this case, the best next step is to identify several publications that are looking for the kind of tone you like to write. Your chances go up significantly if you can zero in on that.
The same goes for books. There are many publishers who are looking for something specific. And if you get your hands on their writers’ guidelines, they can tell you very specifically what tone they are looking for. The tone of a steamy romance, with lots of sex scenes is not likely to get a deal with a publisher of very traditional Christian romances that tend not to have much sex in them, if any. Within most publishing houses there is a range of tone they are looking for in each of its books. But note that trying to chase the tone of any outlet can be a challenge, because it can be a moving target.
Here are few tips:
Think about what tone or mood you are going for with your work before you go in too deep.
Do your market homework. Increase your chance of getting a yes by understanding the tone of an outlet and who their audience is before pitching. If you have a tone in mind, find the publication that likes that tone.
What tone are you trying to capture with your writing? You might decide to change the tone based on where your writing and research lead you, but if you already have a green light from an editor, don’t change tone without a discussion and agreement. Editors hate surprises. And writers hate to see their assignments killed because they took the liberty of changing course and tone without a discussion.
Become a student of how other writers use tone. When you read a piece of writing that works, it is often subtle. Read articles from your dream publications or books in your favorite genre and identify the tone. What makes one story have a specific tone? What words or phrases set the tone of the piece?
You can take any article or book you are reading, whether it is fiction or nonfiction and play the tone game. Take a little time and read these journalistic pieces to get some insight into tone.
Award-winning journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a national correspondent at The Atlantic and in his best-selling book Between the World and Me, always comes out swinging in the very first sentence of his works. The tone is elegant yet in your face. He talks about very uncomfortable subjects for many, but never hides his intent.
This story, What Victims of Hurricane Harvey Can Learn from Katrina by Justin Gallagher and Case Western University, that appears in Salon conveys a lot of information in a small space. It has an academic yet accessible tone that melds facts, figures and insights. The subject is serious so there is no lightness.
Read any number of non-fiction books by bestselling author Erik Larson, including Devil in the White City, and you will see a very strategic style and tone emerge. He is able to take very complex subjects with lots of characters and situations to build out a tone that speaks to the reporting job at hand but also uses so many of the tools of a novelist to keep the reader on the edge of the seat.
Andrea King Collier is an award-winning journalist and author. She writes for leading print, online and broadcast outlets. She is the author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Black Men’s Health, and Still With Me… A Daughter’s Journey of Love and Loss. She is also an in-demand writing teacher and coach.