Writing: Keep Your Tone Steady

While some writers long to develop a writing voice, far more of us struggle to keep our voice even on the page. Much of it comes down to tone. What do I mean?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about ways to keep your writing tone even and steady throughout your work:

Gems in the Sty

I’m a great example of a writer who sometimes writes great lines, stellar scenes and occasionally, brilliant pieces. Often, though, my great writing bits are strung out between paragraphs of so-so prose. My written gems get lost in the sty of my good-but-not-great writing. I turn out beautiful tidbits but they swim in a sea of dishwater. The result is unevenness that readers might not consciously spot but that can drag down my efforts.

This unevenness can sink a piece of writing or banish it to the almost-but-no-thanks pile. Trust me, I know. One way to correct this tendency is in your editing phase. When you note a shift in tone—say from a breezy conversational one to a passionate or poetic tone—mark it and evaluate. Should you strive for the same passion or lyricism in the entire piece? Or is it best to pull back a little on the stuff which sticks out?

The answer depends on your audience. Who are your readers? Will they appreciate a poetic or passionate, literary or artful approach to your story? If you’re writing certain genres, probably not. Action/adventure, thriller or horror often must be faster paced than a poetic observation can deliver. Conversely, a story written in a lyrical tone that suddenly shifts to a comedic or casual one may lose readers. Decide on tone and stick to it.

Your tone should reflect your audience’s expectations.

Unforced Errors

Sometimes, my shift in tone happens because I need to go deeper into my story’s character, motives and what makes people do what they do. If I’ve employed a casual tone and when the heat is on suddenly become more literary, I’m usually sure that I need to do more background work. I need to understand and BE my character, not simply observe her for my readers.

When I write from a character’s passions and desperate wants and needs, I often see a shift in the words I choose. If the words become more generalized or abstract, I know I’m avoiding getting to the core of that character and his plight. If I see atmospheric language in a place that only calls for a summary or transition, I know I’ll need to speed things along.

Take a look at the last scene you wrote and circle every word with more than two syllables. Chances are, these are spots where the camera zooms out, disconnecting the reader from the character’s emotions. You don’t have to “dumb down” your prose, but try for specific words that describe the action, setting and emotions of the scene.

Stay True

If you are saying, “but I use big words all the time!” to avoid writing simply, think of this: on the whole, shorter words have more specific and detailed meanings. The larger your word choice the more general the meaning. This isn’t always true but can be a useful guideline.

I like to quote E.B. White: “Don’t write about man. Write about a man.” This means that the concrete sensory details, actions and emotions your readers crave are usually found in to-the-point word choices, used in a creative way.

Learning to keep your writing tone even will help you develop that voice you are seeking—the voice that will be unique to you as a writer and recognizable in your fiction. In the old Strunk & White guide, The Elements of Style, writing with clarity is first and foremost. Show your readers your own unique voice by writing in an even tone. Ideally, they’ll clamor for more of your writing.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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