Tone Deaf? Tips to improve the tone in your writing


Tone is often one of the most overlooked elements in writing. Tone is all about your writing “voice.” It’s an attitude in your speech that reflects your personal style. Tone and style are important in argument essays, as the way you communicate your argument will affect the audience’s response. For an effective argument essay, you need to sound authoritative and credible. An informal tone that might work well for a personal narrative won’t be as effective for a persuasive essay. Your credibility will be enhanced as you learn to critically evaluate your word choices, style and overall tone.

Informal Tone

Informal Tone is comparable to everyday speech. Most often informal tone works best in a personal narrative, but might also be effective in other circumstances, depending on your purpose. The following example of informal tone is from a student analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

Charlotte’s awesome essay is about how a chick went all crazy thinking something was behind her wallpaper.

The informal tone above is obvious by the word choices (“awesome”; “chick”; “all crazy”), not the most effective tone for an analysis.

Revised for more formal tone:

Perkins essay, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” depicts the effect of confinement on the female narrator’s mental health and her decline into psychosis.

The second example above lends credibility to the writer, as a reading audience isn’t likely to respect the opinions of a writer with such informal word choices and style as in the first example.

Notice the style and tone differences between the two examples below.


Her husband was real controlling and kept her locked up so she could get better.


Her husband was extremely controlling, and confined her so she could recuperate.

Note how the word choices are more precise in the formal example. Also note the intensifier, “real,” is eliminated. Using “real” actually weakens your writing, but is one of the most often-used crutches in student writing.

Avoid “Academese

Often, students who are struggling to find their writing voice error on the other side of the spectrum of tone, going overboard with academic jargon and fat words that take up a lot of space but only muddy the writing. Academese, according to the text, The Write Stuff: Thinking Through Paragraphs, “uses pompous multisyllabic words and unnecessarily complicated sentence structures.”


Facilitation of the deliberations of the collaborative, strategic-planning body was assumed by individuals possessing requisite levels of professional expertise and relevant experience.

Huh? Can you translate?


Senior staff led the meeting of the planning committee.

Got it.

Students often think this overly-complicated tone makes them sound smarter, but it’s often so complex, an audience can’t understand the message behind the words.

Sometimes using elevated vocabulary isn’t in and of itself bad writing, as long as the message is communicated clearly. Your writing purpose will guide you to choose the best word choices to convey a clear meaning.

Other Notes on Tone, Style and Word Choice

We’ve all heard the rumor/rule that contractions shouldn’t be used in academic writing, but sometimes writing just sounds weird without them. Many style guides say it’s okay to use contractions in academic writing and most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions sound natural and relaxed and create a fluid reading.

So follow the rule to use contractions in formal writing if it will sound stranger to avoid them. It is that simple.  Or it’s that simple.

Final Thoughts

Remember that your writing should still have your voice present, that special something that makes your writing sound uniquely like you. Whether you are writing a persuasive essay or a personal narrative, you can adjust your tone while still maintaining some personality.





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