Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing

Choosing words to connect with your audience.

Julie Wildhaber, Writing for
4-minute read
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.