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Writing Style Study Guide (page 3)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Tone

When you speak, your tone of voice actually conveys more meaning than your words. The same is true in writing. To understand what you read, you need to hear the writer's tone.

Tone: the mood or attitude conveyed by words or speech.

When you listen to others, it's usually pretty easy to hear the tone of their voice. But how do you hear tone in writing? How can you tell how the words should sound? Think about how tone is created in speech. We create tone by how quickly or slowly we say a word, how loudly or softly we say it, and by our facial expressions and body language.

When you read, you can't hear how the writer says something, but you can use your powers of observation to determine the tone. Authors often leave clues to the tone in the type of words used, the point of view, and the length of the sentences. Sometimes, the writer's clues make it easy. For example, look at the following sentence:

"Ellen always gets her way! It's not fair!" Ginger shouted angrily.

The key words shouted and angrily tell us just the tone to hear in our heads when we read this passage.

Looking for Clues

Sometimes writers provide this kind of clue when they're writing dialogue, but sometimes they don't. Some of the texts you'll read won't include any dialogue at all. So what clues do you look for when an author doesn't tell you how a character said something?

To answer that question, let's look at an example.

"I just quit, that's all," Toby said, still looking down at the ground. "I just … quit."

How do we know how Toby says this? To determine tone, we need to look carefully at exactly what he says and what he is doing while he says it (the context).

First, notice that Toby repeats himself: He says, "I just quit" two times. The first time, he also says, "that's all"—a phrase that suggests he doesn't know what else to say or how to explain what happened. We can see that he's upset about the situation and doesn't want to talk about it. We can also infer that it was a difficult decision for Toby to make.

The second time Toby says, "I just quit," he includes a pause, which we can "read" from the …, called an ellipsis. Again, this pause suggests that he's uncertain of what to say or how to say it—that he doesn't want to talk about it. Punctuation can be an important clue in determining tone. An exclamation point, for example, tells you that someone is expressing a strong emotion. You'd then have to determine from the context whether that feeling is anger, joy, or some other emotion.

Another clue is that Toby is "still looking down at the ground." What Toby is doing suggests a few things: (1) that he's unhappy with his decision, (2) that he's embarrassed by it, and/or (3) that he knows he has disappointed the person he is speaking to (and therefore can't look that person in the eye).

With these three important observations and the inferences you can draw from them, you can take a pretty good guess at the tone. Does Toby say this loudly or softly? Probably quite softly. Most likely, Toby's words were said with a mixture of anger and sadness—more anger in the first part, more sadness in the second.

Summary

Style is an important aspect of reading comprehension. Sentence structure, the level of description and detail, the level of formality, and the tone of the writing can reveal a lot about the writer's relationship to the reader. They also tell us about the writer's purpose and help us see and feel what the writer is describing.

SKILL BUILDING UNTIL NEXT TIME

  1. As you read, think about how things would sound if you changed the style. Make the sentences more formal or more casual. Add or cross out details and description. Change the sentence structure by combining sentences or breaking long sentences into shorter ones. How does the new style sound? Does it create a different tone?
  2. Look through things you've read recently to find examples of different writing styles. Consider why these authors have chosen different styles.

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Writing Style Practice Exercises

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