Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing

Choosing words to connect with your audience.

Julie Wildhaber, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #229

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.


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