Tone: writing for characters, brands and yourself


Getting the right tone of voice is important to any writer. A tutor might moan that your writing is inconsistent, that your academic essays are too personal, or that you use the passive voice too often. I was recently criticised for copy that wasn’t ‘feminine’ enough in tone. But understanding what ‘tone of voice’ actually means, and how best you can control it, is difficult.

One method is to imagine your work as a character. This has obvious benefits when writing creatively. When constructing a character for a story you have to make sure that you understand her – what kind of person she is, her characteristics, how she talks, how you want her to come across to the reader. Then, throughout the story, you’ll ensure that she remains in character – that her dialogue is realistic and recognisable, and that her behaviour is consistent (even when she acts in surprising ways).

A brand’s dialogue should also be recognisable. If the words on a company’s website come across completely differently to the copy on their posters, they’ll be sending out a mixed message that is likely to confuse potential clients. The most effective brands have a consistent tone of voice, just like the most memorable characters; whether it’s the playful tone used by brands like Innocent and Old Spice, or the witty and sardonic copy implemented in Waterstones’ latest adverts.

In the same way, an undergraduate academic essay should promote a consistent message. You are putting forward an argument – challenging certain points and agreeing with others – so you’re likely to opt for a formal, reasoned tone, which aims at objectivity.

The comparison doesn’t always work. Truly brilliant characters are rarely one-dimensional, and their behaviour will often change according to the events of the story. But in order to appear genuine to the reader, consistency at some level is key for characters, brands and essays.

You may never have written directly for a brand, and you might not be interested in story writing, but the importance of job applications to most students means that you should think about how you present yourself. Seeing yourself as a brand might make you cringe, but completing a cover letter with this in mind, making sure that you are presenting yourself in the right way, can give you an advantage.

Tone of voice is big business. Large firms are increasingly hiring companies like Stratton Craig to help them nail down a tone that reflects their desired brand characteristics, and then produce writing that communicates this. Think about tone when considering how to present your essays, or how to write a comment piece for a publication. Consider it when you’re planning the characters for your creative writing, or getting ready to send a cover letter to your dream employer. If you’re having problems (and a humanities
student), get in touch with the Undergraduate Writing Centre. If you don’t have the time, get a friend to check your work – if someone ‘doesn’t get’ one of your characters, there’s usually a good reason.

Written for Razz by Gregory Hoare (Exeter graduate and copywriter).

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