What do you think of when you hear someone say, “I really like that author’s style?” What about when they say, “they write with such a strong voice?” How are those two things different from the author’s tone? Is there any overlap between these three terms?
The simple answer is yes, they are different, but yes, there is also some overlap.
Style, tone, and voice are all aspects of an author’s writing that set it apart from someone else’s. Authors write for their audience, which influences the choice of style and tone. Voice is something that’s uniquely different for every author. Yes, there are some overlapping attributes between each, but let’s understand each individually first.
Authorial style is the way something is written, not the meaning or argument of it. It comprises a number of nuts-and-bolts elements, such as sentence length, word choice, mechanical (e.g., punctuation) choices, and even grammar itself.
As you can imagine, the style of a formal academic paper is quite different from that of an immersive fantasy novel. Sentences are structured differently—you might see more passive voice in academic writing—specific words are chosen to reflect the field of study (for academia) or the scene (for fantasy), and punctuation style varies. For example, you don’t typically see as many semicolons in fiction as you do in academic writing, unless you’re reading Herman Melville or another classic from the 19th century.
Tone is the mood of the writing, and it is essential for the connection between the author and the reader. Tone depends on the audience and can be, for instance, formal, informal, light-hearted, or serious. It is reflected in word choice, pronoun use, and point of view.
This might sound similar to style, but think of tone as an extra layer of variation within a specific writing style. Tone is the emotion and feeling being portrayed by the author. A first-person or intimate third-person point of view in fiction brings the reader closer to the emotions of the protagonist. An informal—but informative—tone (like that of this blog post) can tell the reader they are part of the learning discussion, but they aren’t being lectured. Tone is subjective.
Say both you and a friend write an essay on parenthood. You might write something that touches on the struggles in a comical way while your friend might dive deeper into the emotionality of raising children. The essays may touch on many of the same points, but the tone would be different.
Voice is harder to pin down as a definition. The voice is the author themself and the persona of the writing. Say you have to describe someone walking through an orchard. What you write will be completely different from what another author writes because your understanding and perceptions of what makes an apple orchard are different from anyone else’s. Your voice is the magical way you put your words together to form sentences on that page.
Style and tone can be mimicked—to a certain extent—but voice is solely yours.
Can We Have an Example?
I find I best understand concepts when I see them in the real world. So, let’s look at a passage from one my favorite authors, Anthony Doerr, to understand these elements further. This comes from his book Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Let’s look at the style first. The first sentence has not just commas but colons and M-dashes to emphasize and support the descriptions that the protagonist Seymour is seeing and feeling. In some places Doerr (or his editor) has omitted commas from where they could have been used between complete clauses. This stylistic choice is common in fiction; sometimes commas clutter a sentence, disrupting a reader’s flow unnecessarily.
In the second paragraph, Doerr puts us in the protagonist’s thoughts about what he imagines the owl to be saying in italics (a stylistic choice). He uses the words magic, sit, breathe, and wait, which give the reader an emotional sense of wonder and appreciation for the wildness of the woods. It touches, but doesn’t stay, in a world of magic. These are examples of setting the tone of the writing.
In the third paragraph, Doerr repeats the words sits, breathes, and waits, and he brings the reader from the forest to the solar system in a single sentence. He captures the imagination without being overly descriptive. The final sentence is short and to the point, but it captures Doerr’s signature voice. He has a way of grounding grand, majestic concepts with simple, but poignant, words.
Why Is It Important to Understand Style, Tone, and Voice?
Writing purposefully in a specific style or tone means that you understand your audience, and you will have a better chance of getting your message across. Also, perfecting your style and tone is akin to perfecting art—your art. If you’ve ever read a passage of prose and said, “Dang! That was good,” then you might want to go back and find that book to study the style and tone.
Understanding and using your writing voice is something that we all practice every time we write. It is the magic that happens when you unite creativity with knowledge, experience, and skill.
How do you understand style, tone, and voice? These definitions come with some subjectivity, and you might find yours differ slightly from what I have here (or from what you find elsewhere). Do you have an idea you would like to add to the discussion? Please do!