Friday: Imagery Exercise—What is Tone in Writing?

One of the more frequent writing questions I get is “What is tone in writing?” It’s rarely defined, never mind taught. However, as I mentioned before, Nancy Dean in her textbook, “VOICE LESSONS: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone,” created my absolutely favorite definition of tone in writing:

“Tone is the expression of attitude. It is the writer’s (or narrator’s) implied attitude towards his subject and audience….tone is the hallmark of the writer’s personality.”

For example, as a reader what do you perceive to be the implied attitude of a person who writes “Vibram shoes are phat” versus the person who writes “Vibram shoes are fat.”

Which of these narrators probably loves running?  Yeah, I agree: the phat narrator.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings as I was growing up was “It’s not WHAT you said, it’s HOW you said it.”  She was obviously trying to teach her very tone-deaf daughter that tone of voice makes a difference. In one tone of voice, something may be humorous; in another tone of voice, the same words become an insult.

In the movie, Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting’s psychiatrist (played by Robin Williams) tells him “Not your fault” — ten times!  A colleague pointed out to me that Robin Williams uses a slightly different tone—same words, different tone of voice—each of those ten times until it finally reached into Will Hunting’s psyche, and Will was able to release all the pent up anger about being abused as a foster child.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s a great scene! (GRrrrrrr! I hate those commercials stuck on the front of YouTube clips!)

Tone in writing is your implied attitude.

So let’s look at your implied attitude towards the following photograph. The important part of this exercise is to NEVER SAY how you feel about it. Let your description carry your attitude. I’ll respond with “this is how you really feel about this subject.”  As a bonus, you should comment on the other writers’ exercises, about how you perceive their attitude about the same photo.

Create a better tone for your writing
What is your implied attitude?


(Click on the photo to get a larger size, if you wish to examine the details.  I mean, is that really a building perched on the ridge?)

Write in JOY!

McKenna Donovan



  • Gary

    I probably missed the point…

    Looking out the LeerJet’s window, Thomas spied the rugged winter scene below. He had a sudden flashback of his sixteenth summer, spent bent over a commercial ice cream freezer, scooping out Vanilla Bean ice cream. Those rocks upon the nearest peak! He closed his eyes – who HAD dumped the walnuts into that half-scooped six gallon tub? Although thirty-seven, he still remembered that first job and being fired from it.

    • McKenna

      Hi, Gary! I don’t think you missed the point at all. It’s about YOUR attitude towards the image, i.e., what it evokes for you. I get the impression that you have bad memories of deep snow, that given a choice, you’d NEVER live where there’s deep, abiding snow.

      So … is my impression correct? If my impression is correct, then your “tone”, i.e., your attitude towards snow, came through very clearly. If my impression is incorrect, then you’ve used a tone that conveys distaste for snow — equating it with a job from which one was fired.

      (I’m really sorry I didn’t comment on this exercise before now!)