I read and edit a lot of nonfiction content — business books, blog posts, advice, and so on. Poor choices in tone often undermine authors’ credibility. Your tone should be expert and authoritative, but not dull.
What is tone?
Tone is the way in which an author’s prose choices communicate the author’s relationship with the reader.
The right tone says: These are the things that I know. I discovered them through research, experience, and expertise. I am sharing them because I want you to benefit.
This is the authoritative tone. Authoritative implies experience, knowledge, and confidence. It does not imply superiority or condescension. Think of an adult teaching other adults, and you’re on the right track.
There are many ways to get the tone wrong. A tone that is slangy and overly familiar is wrong for a business book or blog post. The right tone is not showy and does not draw attention to itself. It also does not draw attention to the author — you should draw in the reader with your insights, not try to dazzle them with your brilliance and egotism.
The right tone is also unequivocal. No one is interested in advice that can’t make up its mind. People want you to tell them what is true and what to do about it.
Examples of tone errors
Writing choices with the wrong tone often reflect the insecurity of the writer. As an editor, I notice them immediately; they stand out like wrong notes in a piano concerto. Tone errors include:
- Exclamation points. If you need to shout to make your point, you didn’t do a good enough job making it.
- ALL CAPS. Ditto.
- Bold. Professional writers use italic (and sparingly). Bold at the start of bullets is acceptable as a way to make content skimmable.
- Crudely rendered graphics.
- Author “asides” to the writer. (“I’m writing this because I’m filled with love for you, the reader, at this moment.” Gag me.)
- Emojis and emoticons. Too cute.
- Talking about yourself. Personal stories can illuminate. Unless you’re writing a memoir, though, there shouldn’t be many of them.
- Alluding to your personal relationships with subjects. As in “When I was talking to my good friend and confidante Taylor Swift . . .” or “As my fellow author, the great and formidable Malcolm Gladwell, describes . . .”
- Naming things after yourself (“Bernoff’s prime principle clearly states . . . “)
So what does authoritative writing include?
Here are the five key elements of business and similar writing and how to describe them in the authoritative tone:
- Ideas and frameworks. Present these powerful elements of your text in straightforward way. “Here are the five key qualities of more persuasive presentations.” A professional graphic stands out here. Numbered lists or bullets can also be helpful.
- Case study stories. Describe people briefly and then explain what problems they faced and what they did about it. Leave yourself out of it. A journalistic tone is appropriate here as you tell the story of what happened.
- Proof points. This is the evidence that proves your points — examples, analogies, statistics, and quotes, for example. Present them and summarize their significance in a clear and direct way. And cite sources (“According to a study by Pew Research . . . “). Rather than taking away from your reputation, citing others’ work makes you sound more authoritative. You’re not the only smart person writing about your topic, after all. In online writing, include links.
- Argumentation. This is the logic that leads your reader to an important conclusion. Be as dispassionate as possible in presenting your evidence. The harder you try to convince, the more the reader’s mind will resist. Ironclad reasoning, laid out clearly and simply, is more likely to persuade.
- Advice. Don’t be shy or equivocal in telling people what to do. Explain why you believe this is the right advice, then lay out instructions as clearly as possible. Advice always implies that the reader has been doing something wrong; don’t draw attention to that by lecturing. Instead take the tone, “Here is a method that works better.” Bulleted and numbered lists are often useful in this context.
How not to be dull
Once you’ve left out all the cutesy stuff and focused on clear and definitive prose, you may be feeling insecure about whether your writing is boring. But simple prose can engage the reader.
The most important way to do this is to discover interesting things. Engage people with what you say, not how you say it. Startling insights and unexpected conclusions will thrill people enough on their own; there’s no need to put sparkles and exclamation points around them. Well-told case studies will win people over immediately. So will research that unearths facts that few have heard before. Novelty, insight, and differentiated perspectives will make your writing meaningful.
And after you’ve ditched the poor techniques in the “tone errors” list, you can still use techniques like these:
- Use “you.” As in “You may have encountered this when you . . . ” or “Here are the five principles that you should keep in mind when you . . . ” This simple technique does more to engage the reader than anything else in your writing.
- Ask and answer rhetorical questions. Ask a question like “What’s the best way to impress your new boss?” Then provide an answer.
- Choose interesting words. If the right word is a word people know but don’t hear often, they’ll smile. “His style of dress was more flamboyant than natty, but it certainly got people’s attention.”
- Vary sentence and paragraph length. Short sentences (including one word sentences like “Baloney.”) attract attention and draw the reader in. For example, note the second paragraph in this passage from Writing Without Bullshit:
There are 92 words in this passage. I’ve marked 38 as not meaningful, which means only 54 are meaningful. The meaning ratio of this passage is 59%.
Nearly half of those words are getting in the way rather than helping.
- Mix up formats. Use bulleted lists, numbered lists, graphics, quotes, links, and headings to break up prose. Nothing is more boring than a long series of uniform paragraphs filling the page or the screen like cinderblocks in a wall.
Of course, you can overdo any of these techniques. But if you use them judiciously, your writing will be engaging despite the straightforward and authoritative tone.
This allows you to balance the two reactions you want: “I respect you” and “I like you.” You need the first to be believable as an author. And you need the second to get them to keep reading.
What you don’t need are tone errors that undermine your prose. Get an editor to help if you need feedback. Because if you get the tone right, your confidence will make it a lot easier to write in an effective and interesting way.