Every piece of writing has a tone because every piece of writing has an author. This is sometimes a tough maxim to swallow, especially if one writes news stories or more “neutral” fare. But short of a lobotomy, there’s no way to remove personality from the passion. Before we go on, let’s define some terms.
What I mean by tone (and what you’ll likely find in most creative writing courses) is the author’s attitude toward the material and/or the mood the author sets for the reader. Tone is from the author; mood is what the reader perceives based on the tone. This is not the same thing as atmosphere, however, which has to do with the feelings that the setting provokes. For example, one classic “atmosphere” line is this:
It was a dark and stormy night, and the pizza man was definitely not getting his tip.
For the overachievers, atmosphere is often related to pathetic fallacy (pathetic in the sense of emotion and not lameness).
Tone is sometimes difficult to quantify, but it has more to do with the second half of the quote above. When you or I write, we are the masters of what we choose to include (scenery, dialogue, quotes, etc.) and how we choose to frame the argument or point. In my sample sentence, you would likely expect “It was a dark and stormy night” to be followed by something more suitable, such as “and this was the winter of our discontent.” However, I chose to include something a bit more ironic, which betrays my attitude toward such a worn out phrase (i.e., I included something unexpected to undermine the “seriousness” of the setting).
You, as a writer, have most of the power in choosing the frame. Obviously, there are “filters” between you and the potential reader, including a potential editor (or three) and the reader’s own personality, beliefs, and expectations. But the author’s tone sets the issue, story, or poem up in a particular fashion.
Let’s look at an example. Here are two different ways of approaching the same topic.
I suppose Madison thought she could save the cat when she flung herself into the street.
Now the other one:
Madison charged into the street to save the cat, but she was just a moment too late.
In the first sentence, my tone is one of contempt for Madison’s efforts—she shouldn’t have even tried is the message I want to convey. In the second sentence, I want the reader to know that she gave it all she had—nearly heroic in her efforts. A few different words can make a big difference.
That’s why word choice is of tantamount importance when you are writing. No matter what the type of writing—journalistic to poetic—your voice carries through. Your tone can generate just as much of a message as your sentences or verses. A good writer takes note of the audience, the purpose, and the ethical concerns (e.g., what the readers expect) when constructing effective writing.