How to Be a Writer: adopting style and tone of a publication
How to Be a Writer is a series that is titled exactly as it sounds. In the digital age, writers are facing new issues on top of the old. As publishing continues to shift and change, not only are writers forced to change as well, they’re establishing themselves entirely differently, making breaking into the scene even more challenging. In this series, we offer up tips, tricks, and general commentary on the journey (or slog) that is being a writer.
Any good publisher is a brand, where its voice—comprised of dozens or hundreds of writers, editors, and creatives—is a cohesive collaboration to competitively represent that brand. Publisher X is known for its sardonic wit; Publisher Y is known for its liberal-skewing, but easily accessible content; Publisher Z is known for its logical, informative, and unbiased pieces; and so on and so forth.
Your job as a professional/aspiring writer—be it a copywriter for an advertising firm, a freelancer, or a content writer—is to write content seamlessly for the brand, publisher, person, etc. (at least, if you’d like to make a living).
We’ve talked about finding your writer’s voice before, and now it’s time to talk about learning how to adjust that voice when it comes to a publisher or brand’s style and tone. But first, some terms.
Writing style is much broader than a writer’s voice. Whereas voice represents your personality, style can represent sentence structure, prose, vocabulary choice, flow, etc. Style usually falls into four basic categories: expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. Each style has different strengths and loose criteria.
Expository writing usually explains a process; facts and figures are ordered logically without any personal bias. Purely facts and figures, expository writing shares an emphasis of priority information, like journalism 101 and, ideally, textbook writing.
- Vox’s Card Stacks explain facts, events, and ideas to the public in a logical, informative way.
- Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias prioritize information.
This one is self-explanatory: it describes an event, idea, or person, in great detail. It’s often used in accordance with other writing styles (besides expository) to invoke senses and imagination.
- Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is famous for its descriptive imagery and “Iceberg” theory.
Persuasive writing reasons, argues, and justifies the position of the author in hope to convert a person to their position. It often appears in speeches, op-eds, commercials, and marketing pitches.
- The New York Times’ opinion page is one of the most respected places to submit and read thought pieces.
- Here is a speech that made Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.
The art of writing a story—novels, short stories, poetry, biographies, even long-form journalism are prime examples—is narrative writing.
- Longform.org recommends fiction and non-fiction long-form pieces across the web.
- I hear that libraries are pretty great, too.
Professional (or aspiring) writers will be able to take from all of these writing styles to make a living and work on their passion projects. But as they write in these styles, the writer also needs to adopt a tone.
Tone is often confused with voice, though the two are separate. Voice is the writer’s personality. Tone is the author’s attitude. Tone answers a few of the “W” questions: why am I writing this, who am I writing this to, and what do I want the readers to take away from this? It manifests itself in writing techniques to show how the writer feels about the subject. Often times, a style can require a very specific tone for the author to adopt. For example, a journalist writing up a business newswire will take expository writing and address the article with clear, concise prose with an undertone of cordiality and respect.
Sometimes tone can starkly contrast the writing style for effect (and even reflect the writer’s voice). Narrative writing genres often indicate a specific tone the author should adopt. For example, if I’m writing a romance novel, and I take a very cynical tone to the prose, characters, and what else, I’m showing how I feel about romance. How I write this cynical tone—am I snarky, mean, pessimistic, jaded?—shows my personality and writer’s voice.
Tips for getting the right style, tone, and voice
Style, tone and writer’s voice work together to create many different types of good writing. As a writer trying to “make it,” you’ll want to have a distinctive writer’s voice, a firm tone and a flexible approach to style. Here are three tips to balance all three.
You’re a writer, so you are a reader. We’ve gone over this. Here’s what I read for news every day. Make your own list and try and read as many different publications that reflect your interests.
2. Practice different styles and tones
Our brains have an impressive ability to pick up on the cadence of other speaking voices. We can mimic it, with varying results (never ask my father to do an impression). The same idea applies to writers’ voices. In fact, a lot of writers try not to read other similar works while they are writing major projects as not to adopt another tone. (That does not mean don’t read. It just means read other types of writing.)
Use this to your advantage and practice writing in the “cadence” of other publications. If you want to write for Vulture—New York Magazine’s pop-culture site—or a similar publication, read the pieces it publishes and think critically about the company and culture. What is Vulture’s brand? Now apply how your skills fit into the company. Is your style more laid-back or formal? Does their style depend on the type of piece? What kind of personalities do you see on the page (or in this case screen)? Which of these does well?
Once you’ve examined style, look for a general tone they adopt because it can vary depending on the subject, piece, type of article, etc. Are they mocking a lot of the material and stories on pop culture? Are they earnest and excited about it? Does it depend on the writer and the piece?
Then it comes down to actually practicing. Try making up your own writing exercise or following a similar one to mine. Going with the Vulture example, take a newsworthy event in pop culture and write a 300-word article in Vulture’s style, tone, and your writer’s voice. Don’t look at the publication for reference. Once you’ve finished—or have given yourself a time limit—compare it to their article on the same subject.
Adopting style and tone takes practice, and sticking to one may be easier for you. Each has their difficulties to master, and remember that you are working without an editor. (Personally, I think it is easier to adopt a tone than a style. Mostly, because a lot of publishers would scratch their head at how often I use parentheticals.)
3. Choose your battles…
Sometimes, you need to compromise with an editor. Other times, you may want to fight for your position and piece with an editor and you’ll quit in an ego rage.
If you want to make it as a writer and freelancer in the digital age (and even before), you need to be willing to compromise. If your tone is at odds with the publisher’s style, it’s time to adjust, preferably before an editor or company speaks up. Not just because they asked you to, but because your job as a writer for someone else is to write like how they hired you to. If you’re good enough and lucky enough, maybe that dream publication or gig will staff you and you will have a position to fight a little more. Until that day, be willing to compromise, but also willing to fight. Choose your battles wisely. You need them and they need you. After all, writers need editors and editors need writers.
What’s important to remember is that your personality should shine through in your work (unless you are ghostwriting) and it should also represent the brand or publisher. Write well and often.
Image credit: Kaboom Pics