ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: T is for Tone, the ‘tude of the writer

Posted by on Jul 25, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

11426633_816272875929_1135390652_nI had a major attitude when I was in high school. Just your typical, mopey, sarcastic, think-I’m-too-cool attitude. On the first day of school, I swaggered into ninth grade Honors English, knowing that I would wow everyone with my 14-year-old insight.

I think you know where this is going. Of course I got knocked down a couple of pegs. Of course I got a “C” on my first paper, which was about the novel Here Be Dragons (major shout-out to my friend K, whom I texted because I couldn’t remember the title of the book).

That Honors English class was a trip, man. Our teacher, Mrs. K, seemed to know everything. She didn’t shy away from telling us that “All literature is about sex and death.” To a bunch of Catholic school girls, this was a shock. We all shook in our Oxford shoes.

Anyway, one of the most important things I learned in that class (besides where the term “horny” comes from) was that tone and mood are not the same thing. I learned it like this:

Tone=Attitude.

Mood=Atmosphere.

I could have built up the mood more in the previous paragraphs. I could have said, “The first day of school was a rainy Monday, with clouds looming over our beribboned heads as we walked into school.” Or, “The classroom was dark, with dust and cobwebs in the corners.” In these cases, I’m using setting to evoke a mood.

But tone, though. Tone is different. Tone is all about attitude. Tone is about how you say something. It gives you the feel of the words. Check out my earlier paragraphs. How would you describe my tone? Is it formal? Is it casual? Is it breezy, or devil-may-care?

It took awhile for the difference between tone and mood to sink into my teenage brain. To be fair, I was also learning algebra, and that stuff is no joke. But now that I’m ten years out of high school, it’s stuck with me. And as I write my own essays, I’m mindful of my tone.

Because I write a lot about grief, the urge to write in a sappy, sad tone is hard to avoid. People often fall into a reverent tone, saying things like “She was the best mother ever. She was angel who came to Earth, but was called back too quickly.” Well, yes, I’m sure she was. But that kind of writing doesn’t fuel any particular sort of fire in the reader, or any real empathy. I’ve tried it. Even writing about my mother in a factual tone didn’t work for me—“She loved x, y, and z. She hated such-and-such. She loved to yadda yadda.” I tried that too, in an essay about my mother painting doors. I tried to take on a matter-of-fact, this-was-my-mother tone. A professional tone.  It wasn’t working. So I reworked it into something more gentle, something more soothing. A scene of my mother painting a door. No hard facts, no straightforward “Here’s what she was like.” The piece, as a whole, is now more gentle.

Tone is an important element to think about when you’re writing. What kind of attitude are you projecting to your reader? Is it pleasant one? Why? Is it unpleasant? Why? Is that okay? Not all tones are positive, nor do they have to be. The important thing is that you think about them.


Mary Lide is a 2015 graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA program, where Non-Fiction was her concentration. She has had work published in The Delmarva Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Hippocampus Magazine. Visit her website.

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