A to Z Day 20: Tone

Tone is all about how an author treats the subject of a text and the audience. The two most common categories for tone

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are “formal” and “informal,” but other words to describe it abound. “Solemn,” “friendly,” “sarcastic,” “condescending,” and “enthusiastic” are a few other examples.

Tone is sometimes confused or used interchangeably with mood; but they are different concepts. Tone is about the author’s attitude as expressed by things like diction, syntax, and point-of-view. Mood is about how a piece of writing affects the audience. So, tone has an influence on mood of a piece, and there are many words that can be used to describe both (somber, for example).

Many other aspects of a piece of writing can affect tone, including the amount of detail an author employs (see images), the sounds of the words themselves (see euphony), the level of specialization in the chosen vocabulary (see jargon), and the overall pace of the piece.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what sort of tone you’re setting, and sometimes different readers will read the same words and interpret their tone differently. For example, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish “passionate” from “angry.” The only way to really be sure about the tone of a piece of writing is to have other people read it and give you feedback.

 

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A to Z Day 10: Jargon

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Jargon is specialized language, usually either of the technical or academic varieties. It serves a very important purpose: it allowsspecialists to communicate among themselves with a high degree of precision. The problem with jargon, though, is that it’s so precise, and includes so many terms, it sounds like a foreign language to people who don’t know all the concepts. There just aren’t that many specialists in any given field. So you want to stay away from it if you’re attempting to communicate clearly with a large audience.

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, famously suggested that scientists from different disciplines need translators just as much as people who speak different languages. This problem is compounded more by the fact that people sometimes use jargon for the following reasons:

  • Just to seem smart.
  • To prove they are actually as educated as their credentials indicate.
  • Because they’ve forgotten that people outside their field find that sort of talk incomprehensible.
  • As a cynical ploy to win an argument by confusing everyone else into agreeing (specialists who are also politicians are especially good at this one).

I am fluent in several of these specialized languages. I was once asked in a job interview “do you speak nerd?” And I said “yes, yes I do.” Because I know what SSL stands for and what Fortran was. I have a reading knowledge of theology, philosophy, geography, history, and economics; am conversant in the language of literary criticism and rhetoric/composition; and am fluent in the grand dialect of the social sciences.

If just want to bust out with some writing that makes perfect sense to people who understand technology and four academic disciplines, and  is completely incomprehensible to everyone else, I can do that. But really, what’s the point? I’ve never met a theologian/programmer/literary critic/sociologist. Not even once.

My point with all this goes back to day 1. Think about who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to people who aren’t specialists, and you’re fortunate enough to have specialized training, don’t use jargon. Put it in plain, everyday language.

Jargon does have some artistic uses, though. If you can get a good enough handle on some technical language to use it in dialogue, you can use it to make a character seem like a know-it-all, to reveal personal insecurities, to show that they don’t have very good social skills, and to do lots of other things.

There’s even a sub-field of guerilla academics devoted to publishing computer-generated papers just to be funny and call attention to low acceptance standards.

 

 

April A to Z Day 5: Euphony

Euphony is a term from poetics that means your language is pleasing to the ear. It’s top-priority for poets, dramatists, and speechwriters. It’s also an important consideration for prose. I “hear” things as I read them, and I believe a distinctive written

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voice is a sign of artistic maturity. Euphony is all about sound. Here are a few tricks I use to make sure my writing isn’t jarring to my readers’ ears.

1. Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or phrase. A trick I use for this one is to find two synonyms for the word I’m repeating and vary them. When I’m writing about something that’s so specific I can’t find the synonyms, I mitigate the repetition as best I can with careful attention to pronoun usage, sentence length, and word ordering.

2. Stay away from sentences that are all nearly the same length. Short sentences result in choppy writing; too many long sentences produce a monotone. Early in my career, I used an exercise to teach myself to vary my sentence length. I’d write a paragraph and make sure each sentence had at least seven more, or seven fewer words that the previous one. I’d begin with say, 12 words. The next sentence might 5 or 19+, and so on. It worked! I learned to give my writing a natural, conversational rhythm and now I do it without thinking. Cool, huh?

3. Avoid unintentional alliteration. Sometimes, using back-to-back words that begin with the same letter are unavoidable, but I try not to use three (and certainly not four) unless I’m doing it on purpose and I’m sure it sounds good. This is an issue I typically deal with in revision.

4. Don’t use too many adjectives, and be even more sparing with adverbs. Three adjectives is nearly always at least one too many, and you can nearly always eliminate every instance of the word “very” by simply cutting it or choosing a stronger word to begin with (replace “very happy” with “elated,” for example).

These are only the basics. Since everyone’s preferences are different I’m interested in hearing from you:

What makes a piece of writing grate on your ear? Do you use specific techniques to avoid those things in your own writing?

This post was difficult to illustrate, so I’ll just post this graphic here. I find it very useful for keeping up with where I should be at the end of each week of the challenge.

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Personal Note – I’m a little off my normal routine because I had some personal stuff going on yesterday that kept me offline all day. I barely had time to do the visits. My plan is to catch up with comments and update my A to Z page later this afternoon, and use tomorrow to catch up with those of you who Tweet with me.

Badge and calendar images by Jeremy of Being Retro