How to Control the Tone of an Essay

Though tone is slippery to nail down and might be one of the most difficult parts of a language to learn, managing the tone of an essay can make the difference between an “A” and an “F.”

In fact, tone can also be the determining factor for getting a nice pat on the back after you say “I’ll go clean my room now, Mom” or getting a slap on the face for saying “Sure, yeah, of course I’ll clean my room, lady.”

scolding woman saying don't use that tone with me

So, how can you use this intangible powerhouse to fuel your next essay? Before we talk about how to control the tone of an essay, let’s talk first about what tone really is.

What Is Tone in Writing?

Simply put, tone is the writer’s personality mixed with his or her feelings about the subject matter, and tone comes through in the author’s word choice.

Controlling the tone of an essay has a lot to do with using similar types of words that all contribute to the overall feeling a reader gets from the writing.

To get this concept to stick in your head, let’s dig into some examples. This is the opening sentence from the well-known book, Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld:

“The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”

Here, the stark contrast between what you associate with an early summer sky (beauty, serenity, etc.) and upchuck from your least favorite cat leaves you with a feeling that the speaker in the novel doesn’t care much for the sunrise at all. Associating the sunrise with vomit gives the opening of the novel a cynical and uncaring tone.

Let’s change a few words in that sentence and see what happens.

“The early summer sky was the color of an artist’s well-used pastels.”

Here, though the reader still gets the idea that sunrise is probably light red and orange, we have a completely new tone. In my rewritten sentence, “well-used pastels” matches up with the associations that typically come along with a sunrise, so the tone might be affectionate or admiring.

If you need help coming up with more tone words, check out this list.

What’s important here is that creating the right tone is all about the words you choose. They make all the difference.

What’s also important is that you’ll never see the sunrise the same way again.

tone of an essay

What Should the Tone of an Essay Be?

When you’re writing a formal essay, your instructor probably won’t appreciate you taking a sarcastic, frustrated, or comedic tone. Most likely, your instructor expects you to write in a scholarly, informative sort of tone that showcases your literary analysis or research.

Okay, let’s pretend that we are writing an essay about why texting while driving is dangerous.

red xVersion 1:

You know, texting while driving is bad. It’s like you can’t really pay attention to anything else, and you might get into a super big crash and your mom will be all up in your face about it.

In this version, phrases such as “you know” and “like” make the writer of this sentence sound as though he or she is not serious about the topic. Also, the contraction “can’t” and colloquialisms such as “super big” and “all up in your face” make the tone of an essay sound too informal and not academic.

Lastly, using the second-person perspective (you, your, yours) smashes any idea anyone might have had of an academic tone.

Now, let’s try getting rid of all the elements that make that sentence sound like a Valley Girl wrote it.

green checkVersion 2:

Texting while driving causes a large number of accidents every year. Because drivers cannot successfully pay attention to both their phones and their surroundings, their likelihood of getting into an accident goes up dramatically whenever they reach to text someone.

Here, there are no contractions, uses of second-person perspectives, or colloquialisms. Instead, this paragraph keeps an impersonal, factual perspective of the topic, making its tone academic in nature.

Now, notice that I didn’t really include any big and fancy words. Many students make the mistake of thinking that big words make the tone of an essay more scholarly, but that can actually ruin the tone of an essay and make it sound just as ridiculous as version 1. See what I mean below.

red xVersion 3:

Texting while operating a vehicle causes a hefty quantity of calamities every year. Because drivers cannot efficaciously pay attention to both their phones and their environs, their prospects of getting into an accident go histrionically up whenever they send a digital message to another person.

Not only does this version sound wordy and ridiculous, but it is relatively obvious that whoever wrote it (me) had the thesaurus in his or her hand at every step of the way. Here, the writer is trying so hard to have an academic tone that the tone actually turns into satire or cynicism.

It’s much better to use words you know to prove your point than to make your essay sound like it’s being read aloud by an ancient old man with glasses.

For more tips about how to avoid those temptingly big words, check out this blog about not using words that sound smart.

tone of an essay

Making the Tone of an Essay Academic Doesn’t Mean It Has to Be Boring

As the writer, you absolutely have creative license while working on your essay, and you don’t have to maintain a strictly scholarly tone 100 percent of the time. Though it’s good to stick to an academic tone as much as possible in formal essays, throwing in the odd joke or giving your essay more of a creative feel works in some cases.

Also remember that you have much more leeway in your essay’s tone when you are writing a personal or narrative essay. In fact, keeping a scholarly tone in those assignments will make them boring and irritating to both write and read.

When you have tonal freedom, you should choose the tone that is most appropriate for your story. For instance, you probably wouldn’t want to use a joking tone to talk about your great-grandmother’s funeral. Often, choosing the right tone in stories comes naturally since the words you use to describe events already match the tone you need.

To get some ideas about what tone to take in a personal narrative essay, see these examples.

Still Worried about Controlling the Tone of an Essay?

Our editors at Kibin have a complete understanding of tone and can’t wait to help you sort it out. We’ll give you pointers about word choice and resources that will shape you into a master of tone in your writing.

To get your writing polished up and ensure that you are using an appropriate tone for your topic, check out our essay editing services today!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.