Writing techniques #2 How understanding style, tone and register improves engagement in writing
What’s the secret to a great piece of writing?
Some say talent. Some say flair.
Some say control. Some say wit.
Very few say technical proficiency.
But there are constants within all of the above – the foundational building blocks which make all writing effective.
It’s what all good writing has in common. Whether you’re explicitly aware of the writing techniques you use or not – you are using them.
And, if the techniques and rules haven’t been applied properly, you’ll spot it. Sticking out like a sore thumb.
However, unless you’re grounded in these rules and techniques, you won’t know why you’ve got a problem. And fixing work when you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong is really difficult. Because if you don’t know why something’s not working, where do you even start?
This is the core purpose of my blog series on writing technique. Because when a piece of writing “feels wrong” or “lacks flow” it will be for specific reasons. And having a better technical knowledge can help you fix it.
But whatever qualities – talent, wit, flair – a writer needs to do a good job, the primary factor I always hold at the forefront of my mind is engagement.
Writing techniques that are key to engagement
Engagement is about grabbing and holding the reader’s attention, compelling them to stick with you and keep reading to the end. Engagement means being persuasive. By which I don’t just mean getting someone to buy something, but convincing the reader of your point of view, angle, or making something believable and credible.
And the key to all of this? It starts by matching the purpose and audience to the tone, style and register.
Nail this, and your readers will stick with you to the very end.
What are tone, style and register?
With any piece of writing, it starts with the purpose – WHY you are writing, followed by the audience – WHO you are writing for.
Tone, style and register are about HOW you then choose to deliver that purpose to that audience. So they’re fundamental factors to consider whenever you want to engage or compel a reader.
Consider the characteristics of your target audience – who are they, how do they like to be spoken to, what type of words and sentences do they use when communicating in the context specific to your task?
For example – if your purpose is explaining a new drug to a group of educated medics, you would probably opt for a mix of formal, impersonal register, with a serious tone and professional style, pitched at a level that respects and understands their high level of expertise and education. You could boost engagement by employing vocabulary common to the sector and the language medics use when speaking to their peers in a professional context. Crucially, it also needs to be clear and easy to understand, so there are many factors at play.
Alternatively, if your purpose is to entertain and educate an audience of 5 year old children with a story about the solar system, you would make very different choices. You’d consider what compels them to engage with a story, the level of language appropriate for 5 year olds, whether it’s for an adult to read to them or to be read independently, and you’d want to incorporate a level of lively simplicity that makes the learning and the journey fun.
Therefore, in order to ensure your writing hits the mark, early decisions about tone, style and register are key.
What is tone in writing?
Tone, in writing, is about mood. It’s about the writer’s attitude to what they are saying. It’s the implied perspective and the feelings that text evokes in the reader.
As writers, there are many choices we make that can affect tone, including:
- Inflection – grammatical choices for word endings, such as tense selection – considering the different effects between “he had been walking” or “he walked” for example.
- Cadence – this is the rhythm and flow of writing. It can be affected by many factors. For example:
- Cacophony. A clash of sounds in word choices (as opposed to euphony). Sometimes a sequence of hard consonants can feel like a “mouthful” or abrupt interruption, so switching to softer sounds, or changing the syntax (word order) can help it flow better.
- Prosody – this describes the patterns of stress and intonation we apply when reading aloud. But we also apply prosody when reading in our heads, so if writers create a sequence of words where the meter of emphasis is off, for example, this will interrupt the flow just as much as if we’re speaking out loud.
- Sentence type, length and variety – 3 short sentences in a row feel quick and punchy. A long sentence linking several clauses is slower and contains more information, so is likely to be more complex and nuanced.
- Punctuation choices – The length and type of pauses created by punctuation choices can also affect cadence and therefore tone.
- Voice – this is about giving the writer, speaker or character particular characteristics. A voice may be characterised by specific vocabulary choices, distinctive syntax choices that favour a particular pattern, sentence and paragraph structure and use of punctuation for particular effects.
It’s important to remember that some of the choices above can also relate to style, but tonal choices are specifically intended to create a mood or attitude and evoke feelings in the reader.
What is style in writing?
Yes, dear reader, this is going to overlap with tone! What’s different here, is the intention. Where tone is about mood, style is about creating an identity on the page. Whether as an individual or on behalf of a brand.
There are four main types of writing that come with their own set of stylistic expectations and purposes:
- Expository writing – An expository writing style informs or explains a subject to readers, clearly and concisely. This style covers text forms like how-to guides, blogs, white papers, academic writing and news articles.
- Descriptive writing – A descriptive style uses literary devices such as figurative language and sensory detail in an artistic way. It’s highly detailed and often verbose, taking its time to paint a picture. Descriptive writing is found in fiction, literary non-fiction (biography, travel writing, diaries) and poetry.
- Narrative writing – Narrative style is carefully structured to tell a story and goes hand-in-hand with descriptive writing. It includes a sequence of events, characters, setting, plot and sometimes dialogue. It’s used in fiction writing, literary non-fiction and narrative poetry.
- Persuasive writing: A persuasive writing style aims to communicate a heavily one-sided opinion to influence the reader. Persuasive writing styles come on a spectrum from subtle to explicit, including cover letters, advertising campaigns, marketing content, political speeches and editorials.
What about your personal style?
Of course, beyond the above formal stylistic conventions, you’ll have undoubtedly developed your own individual style.
Depending on your influences, your (often subconscious) writing style will favour particular grammatical choices, syntax, vocabulary and devices. It’s a melting pot of all your influences, depending on how and where you learnt your craft – from your education, to your reading choices, life experiences and cultural influences.
For example, if you’re a particular fan of writers like Hemingway, you may have absorbed a pared-down, simple and direct style, differing completely from someone influenced by Woolf, who may have a freer, poetically crafted, more flowing style.
Writing style in copywriting
In copywriting, there is often a “house style” that brands have developed and copywriters must adhere to. While your personal style may seep through, it’s important to try and avoid this. For a brand, consistent style is key, so it sounds like it’s written by that brand rather than an individual.
Clothing is a helpful metaphor for understanding style. Your personal style comprises the sartorial choices you make when getting dressed – in part these will be practical, some will be down to the context, your favourite colours, fabrics, aesthetic or even your emotions. Some of these choices will be conscious, some won’t. But dressing in a considered, particular way conveys a strong message. And the more carefully crafted your outfit, the stronger the message will be.
However, when it comes to copywriting, or even ghost writing, you need to adopt the uniform or mimic the outfit choices of someone else. A uniform has a particular set of characteristics designed for effect – an effect that has been carefully crafted by your client.
When wearing a uniform (writing for a brand), some of your individual stylistic traits will probably come through a little (imagine this like your hair style or the jewellery you never take off) but you really want your personal style to appear as little as possible, because it’s all about engaging the brand’s audience with a style that speaks to them.
What is register in writing?
Register is about matching your language choices to the social context of your writing. Register is a spectrum, from casually familiar through to informal, then formal through to ceremonial. Where to pitch the register of your writing has a huge impact on your target audience – miss the mark and they won’t engage.
- Familiar – the friendliest and most laid back of the registers, this is relaxed about rules, heavily colloquial and informal. Grammar, spelling and punctuation are of little importance and it will be packed with the slang and expressions familiar to a social group.
- Informal – you’ll see this style in opinion-based journalism and online writing for a lay audience. It’s usually casual and conversational, personal and subjective and is often used in the “friendly expert” tone of voice. It sometimes relaxes the rules of Standard English or employs widely-understood slang terms.
- Formal – the formal register is impersonal, uses Standard English and is the register employed for academic writing, law, medicine and technical writing. Strong opinions can be expressed objectively (for example in a research paper) and it often employs the passive voice.
- Ceremonial – this register is rarely used. The most formal of the registers, it’s often archaic-sounding and full of rhetoric. Ceremonial texts comprise performative writing in a highly formal setting, such as legal speeches or religious liturgy and can be seen in historical documents.
Register is a spectrum
Definitions aside, the spectrum of formality is nuanced and it’s good to experiment. Non-fiction writing, particularly copywriting, requires a sensitive approach to register. With business writing, there are subtle degrees of formality and informality, depending on the reader. This is why it’s key to research your audience carefully – a careless exclamation mark can create informality in a text that needs to be taken seriously, or the use of the passive voice can create off-putting formality.
Nuanced adjustments to your style and tone can have a huge impact on the register, so research carefully before you start as it could make all the difference when it comes down to engagement.
An unprecedented age of literacy
Whatever form you are writing in, our society has never been so literate. There’s an unprecedented demand for the written word, not least because we now have to access information and services online.
While this can mean rich pickings for professional writers, it also comes with a caveat – competition for engagement has never been higher. We need to captivate and compel with our writing. And tone, style and register play an enormous part.
It’s no longer good enough to stick content out there for the sake of it.
Quality is everything.
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