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The Elements of Voice in Writing Article #3: Tone
Anthony Risko
July 10, 2023

In this series, we are exploring the concept of voice in writing. Voice is a complex art that many writers develop over time. However, teachers in middle school can start teaching voice by focusing on the five elements: diction, syntax, tone, imagery and detail. In this third installment of the voice series, we will explore tone. 

Voice: Tone

Tone is the attitude or emotion that the writer expresses through their writing. Tone is mostly developed through the other components of writing we’ve discussed in this series, including syntax and diction. Tone can vary as widely as emotions vary since nearly any emotion can be conveyed through tone. Tone can be serious, humorous, sarcastic, critical, or empathetic, among many other possibilities. 

You can look back in our first series on Voice: Diction to see examples of formal and informal diction, which consequently create a formal or informal tone. A few other examples of tone that authors often employ are humorous tone, suspenseful tone, and an optimistic tone. These examples are student-friendly and will be useful in your classroom to present directly to students when first introducing the concept of tone. 

Humorous tone is used by writers to entertain or amuse their readers and maybe even get a laugh. It is typically playful, witty, and uses wordplay or jokes. For example, “I was so excited to get my braces off, but now I feel like I’ve been robbed of my superpower. I mean, how am I supposed to eat corn on the cob now? It’s nearly impossible without the metal in my mouth!” 

Another common tone that writers use, particularly in novels or short stories, is a suspenseful tone. This tone is used to create tension and keep the reader engaged and always guessing what might happen next. An example of suspenseful tone is: “The shadowy figure moved closer, step by step, until it was just a few feet away, and then…nothing. The silence was deafening as we waited, and wondered what would happen next.” In this example, the syntax, or sentence structure, clearly communicates a tone of suspense to the reader. 

Last for this set of examples, but certainly not last in the endless world of tone, is optimism. An optimistic tone is used to express hope or positivity. It is typically uplifting, encouraging, and uses overtly positive language. For example, “Although we face challenges, we can work together to overcome them and achieve our goals.” An optimistic tone can often be used in persuasive writing when trying to inspire action from the readers. 

After you’ve introduced tone in your classroom with these examples, or your own, you can help students develop a deeper understanding through the following activity. 

To prepare, put together a collection of several short passages or texts that have different tones. Make printed copies or post them on your classroom platform so that all students can access the sample passages. 

First, ask students to read and choose an emotion or tone that matches each passage or text. You can choose to provide students with a bank of options or have students come up with the descriptive tones on their own. 

Next, have students share the tones they came up with in small groups and then eventually in a full class discussion. Be sure to have students share the examples from the texts and why they used a specific word to describe the tone. 

As a class, compare and contrast the different tones of the passages and texts. Ask students to reflect on how the tone affects the meaning and the mood of each passage. You should ask, “Why do you think the author chose to write in this tone? How did it impact you as a reader?”

After analyzing several samples, it’s time for students to practice! Give students a writing prompt and ask them to write three different responses to the same prompt using three different tones. You can use the three examples above - humorous, suspenseful, and optimistic - or choose a different set. The ultimate goal of this final practice is that students get practice varying their tones in order to gain a deeper understanding of how tone can impact their writing. 

By engaging in this full activity, students will learn to identify and analyze different tones in writing, which will help them understand how tone can affect the overall meaning and impact a piece of writing. 

Additionally, by practicing writing different tones, students can further develop their own writing skills and learn how to effectively convey different emotions and messages in their writing. Tone is another element in developing voice, and in our next series, we will discuss imagery. 

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