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Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing

Choosing words to connect with your audience.

By
Julie Wildhaber, read by Mignon Fogarty,
July 1, 2010
Episode #229

 

Today, Julie Wildhaber, who trains writers and editors at Yahoo!, will explain what it means when people tell writers to find their voice, and also how to understand the difference between voice and tone in writing.

What Is a Writing Voice?

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells "American Idol" contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version. Many musicians have played "The Star-Spangled Banner," for instance, but there's a world of difference between the Boston Pops' performance and Jimi Hendrix's, even though the basic melody is the same.

In writing, the New York Times and the New York Post may cover the same story, but their headlines are likely to be quite different. For example, when Ike Turner died, the New York Times had a straightforward headline: "Ike Turner, Musician and Songwriter in Duo With Tina Turner, Dies at 76"; whereas the New York Post went for a bad pun: "Ike 'Beats' Tina to Death."

Why Voice Matters

There's a big difference between a conversational voice on a celebrity gossip site and a conversational voice on a bank site.

Voice is important because your writing should have as much personality as you do. You've read things that seem to have been written by committee, and it's not a fun experience. A strong voice helps you make every word count, establishes consistency across your website or body of work, and most importantly helps you grab your readers' attention and establish a relationship with them. You probably have a short list of writers you'll read no matter what their subject, because you like their style so much, and other writers you can't stand because they sound snarky or condescending or otherwise unappealing to you.

Finding Your Voice

So how do you discover and develop your voice? Start by thinking about these three things:

  1. What you want to communicate about yourself or, if you're writing for a business, about the company's brand. If you asked your readers to describe your copy with a few adjectives, which words would you want them to choose?

  2. The purpose of what you're writing. Should your voice be different for an obituary than for a movie review? Do you want to inform, entertain, or motivate readers to take action?

  3. Your target audience. Are you writing for kids, professional investors, soccer fans from around the world?

As you think about each of those factors, scribble down adjectives that might apply to your voice. If you get stuck, consider some qualities that you don't want to convey, like "long-winded" or "snooze worthy" or "arrogant." Consider your peers and competitors, too: How will your voice be distinct from theirs?

When you have a substantial list, start to prune. Delete any descriptors that seem secondary in importance, and see if you can make any words more specific. Many writers might describe their voices as conversational, for example, but there's a big difference between conversational on a celebrity gossip site and conversational on a bank site. Boil your list down to four or five essential descriptors.

How Do You Translate Voice into Words?

The next step is to translate those voice characteristics into writing mechanics. Voice may affect your word choice, sentence and story structure, even your punctuation. For example, if you're writing about fashion for tween girls, and you want your voice to be fun, trendy, upbeat, and accessible, then you might want to keep your vocabulary at an eighth-grade level but allow slang and even some made-up words for freshness; you might want to set an attention-span-appropriate word count; and punctuation marks that some people consider too casual, such as exclamation points and ellipses, are probably OK in moderation. Create some writing do's and don'ts specific to your voice.

There are a few elements to be careful with: jargon, culture-specific references, and humor. If you're speaking to a highly specific readership, like tech fans or grammar geeks, then it may be not only necessary but expected that you'll use insider terminology like "cloud computing" or "nonrestrictive clause." But generally speaking, the more diverse your audience, the more you should strive for clarity and simplicity and avoid slang, humor that might be misconstrued, and culture-specific references. For instance, baseball-derived slang like "bush league" and "batting average" may be Greek to anyone not from the U.S.

What's the Difference Between Tone and Voice?

One more thing: Some of you may be wondering what the difference is between voice and tone. You could consider tone a subset of voice. If voice is the personality of a story, then tone is the mood. Although lots of writers could describe their voice as funny, the mood of their individual pieces might be dark or biting or silly or sarcastic.

Summary

A strong, well-defined voice is the bridge between you and your audience: It helps your readers understand who you are, and it helps you engage them and keep them coming back for more. Take 20 minutes to define your voice, and you'll never sound like bad karaoke or committee writing.

The Yahoo! Style Guide

This article was written by Julie Wildhaber, one of the minds behind the new book the Yahoo! Style Guide. If you like what you read here, check out the Yahoo! Style Guide, on sale July 6, 2010, or visit styleguide.yahoo.com.

Oliver Standard Visible Writer image, Virginia Hammer at Flickr. CC BY – SA 2.0

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