The factors that affect tone of voice

Whatever you’re writing, nailing the right tone of voice is one of the trickiest things there is.

Get it right and your reader will feel an instant connection with you or your brand. Get it wrong and you’ll completely alienate them.

Here are seven factors that’ll affect your tone of voice.

  1. Sentence length

Generally, the longer your sentences, the more formal your tone of voice. And the shorter they are, the friendlier. Compare, for example:

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Even for really formal writing like academic essays, you’ll want to be careful not to make your sentences too long, because that’s going to affect how readable your writing is.

But in a less formal environment, you may be able to get away with much shorter sentences. Used well, even one word sentences can help you get your message across powerfully and persuasively.

See also: Sentence structure: how to make your sentences much easier to read

2. Word choice

Word choice, too, will affect your tone of voice. And again, the shorter the words the less formal the style. Compare for example “prerequisite” versus the more colloquial “a must” or “prior to” versus “before”.

Although again, even with academic writing, you don’t want to be using long words for the sake of it. As George Orwell famously said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do”.

And if you’re working for a very modern, creative company you might be able to get away with slang or even swearing. I once worked with a firm whose four company values, stated in all the HR literature were ‘Brave, Smart, Humble and Give a Shit’.

For tips on choosing friendlier words, see: Speak English, why don’t you?

3. Active v passive

Another thing that affects tone of voice is the use of active rather than passive verbs. For example, compare: “personal development is encouraged” sounds less friendly and more formal than “we’ll invest in your personal development”. But to quote George Orwell again, never use the passive when the active will do.

See also: Passive verbs: why do all writers hate them?

4. Overall readability

As with long words and sentences, the more you use the passive, the more formal your writing will sound - and the harder it will be to read. But even for academic writing or formal business writing you want to keep your writing as readable as possible. As a former editor of mine once said, even a lawyer will never complain that something’s too easy to read.

For more on readability, including how to use online readability tools to improve your writing, check out:

Readability: it’s not just about sentence length

Word’s readability score - how to use it to make good writing great

Three free tools for better business writing

5. Use of pronouns

Another factor is how “pronouny” your writing is.

For example, addressing your reader directly as ‘“you’” sounds friendlier than referring to them in the third person, as say, “the client’”. Ditto talking about “we” and “us” rather than “the company”.

6. Use of contractions

Another factor that affects tone of voice is the use of contractions – for example, “you’ll” and “you’re” sound more conversational than “you will” and “you are”.

In an academic essay, you’ll want to spell out these contractions, but in a piece of business writing you’ll probably be able to get away with them.

7. Adherence (or not) to the “rules” of grammar

The final factor that affects tone of voice is the extent to which you depart from traditional grammar rules ideas. For example, depending on your reader, you can probably get away with starting sentences with “and” and “but” in business writing because they’ll give your writing a friendly, conversational tone. But you’ll probably want to stick to the formal rules of grammar for more academic pieces.

For the Doris and Bertie take on one of the most contentious grammar “rules” in English, see Split infinitives: Go on! Do it! There, that feels better, doesn’t it?