Tone is conveyed largely through word choice and sentence structure, though other writing mechanics, such as punctuation and word styling (e.g., bolding, capitalization), can help convey it as well. In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing, Thomas Kane describes it as a “web of feelings stretched throughout the essay.” Simply put, tone is the author’s feelings on their subject as represented by the text.
Writing’s tone is akin to a speaker’s tone. When we speak, we can say one sentence in a number of ways to produce different meanings. When your significant other tells you, “Sure, go ahead and purchase that boat” with sarcasm in their voice, you know you should keep your checkbook closed.
The website Literary Devices collects some of Holden Caulfield’s remarks to demonstrate the sarcastic tone the character brings to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
All morons hate it when you call them a moron.
If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she’s late? Nobody.
Goddamn money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.
Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic.
But tone doesn’t have to be the same throughout the text and can change with just a line or two. Here’s an excerpt from Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade:
The pulse jumped at the same time as the thieves did. Shadows unfolded themselves. There was a scrape of metal.
A low voice said, “There’s two of you, ladies, and there’s six of us. There’s no use in screaming.”
“Oh deary deary me,” said Granny.
Mrs. Plinge dropped to her knees. “Oh, please don’t hurt us, kind sirs, we are harmless old ladies! Haven’t you got mothers?”
Granny rolled her eyes.
The mood is threatening and perhaps scary until Granny Weatherwax rolls her eyes. Immediately the mood lightens. While it’s the action that changes our understanding of the scene, the word choice and sentence structure are what set the tone. The sentence is brief, emphasizing the action and its importance. What follows that sentence is a paragraph of Granny’s thoughts, which affirm that Granny is taking charge of the situation and won’t put up with any childish nonsense—a very different tone from the threat in the paragraphs immediately preceding it:
Granny rolled her eyes. Damn, damn and blast. She was a good witch. That was her role in life. That was the burden she had to bear. Good and Evil were quite superfluous when you’d grown up with a highly developed sense of Right and Wrong. She hoped, oh she hoped, that young though these were, they were dyed-in-the-wool criminals …
Tone can be dark, funny, serious, melancholy—the whole range of human emotions. But identifying it means looking at two editor-friendly elements: words and sentences. If we stop to consider what’s creating the tone, we can edit accordingly.
To learn more about writing style and how to edit for it, check out my In Depth article, “Using Science to Define the Art of Writing Style,” in the upcoming April–May issue of Copyediting.