From the Editor’s Desk: All the Small Things that Affect Tone

In content marketing, the tone of any copy – from a tweet to a long form – is as important as any aspect of a brand’s image. It needs to be consistent across all written content, which can be difficult when many disconnected writers are handling the copy for a single company. The task usually falls to editors to right these discrepancies.

“Please revise for tone” or “Edit for style”, however, can be some of the most confusing assignments for the uninitiated editor or writer. This is likely because they require an editor to assume the role of a writer, and vice versa. Adding to the ambiguity are vague client requests asking for a more conversational, friendly, educational, or authoritative tone. Describing writing in such a way can seem subjective, and therefore impossible to truly achieve.

Know the Brand to Know the Tone

A writer or editor needs to understand clients and brands they work for well enough to know what tone revision requests imply. In that regard, there are no short cuts; read other content on their sites and in other media and get an idea for how they want to present themselves.

Reaching that level of familiarity takes time, though, so what can you do right away to turn an informal piece into one of authority, or a strict, factual work into a friendly one? Start with the following checklists for the two most common general tones and styles in content writing.

Revising for a Conversational Tone

Conversational can generally be a synonym for friendly or informal. A request for a conversational revision usually means the client has a certain laid back, approachable, or easy going brand image that the last writer missed. And it happens; the age of personable brands on social media is relatively new, so many writers still automatically assume all clients want serious, professional content.

If you find yourself struggling with a conversational overhaul, consider these simple starting points:

  • Second person. It’s in the name: conversational. Talk to the readers, directly. Change a simple statement of fact to a sentence that includes the reader somehow. “We have 100% organic cotton clothing” is better as “You and your friends will love our 100% organic cotton clothing.”
  • Direct questions. A conversational piece is meant to make readers forget they’re reading and feel like they’re talking to you. Change a simple statement to a question to make readers feel involved, like turning “Our newest product is the lemon blueberry scone” into “Have you tried the new lemon blueberry scone?”
  • Colloquialisms. English has so many colloquialisms, or informal phrases, that it’s actually much harder to write without them than to include them. Just fit in phrases that come to mind as you’re reading the edit. This article is littered with them!
  • Extra information. Now, I am not advocating filler. However, in conversational writing, there is a place for additional, reader-focused information that would otherwise be absent in professional writing. Imagine you are editing a pharmaceutical ad that wants to sound more conversational. Instead of only including facts like “This new drug provides 24-hour relief from allergy symptoms…”, add something to it that brings the reader into the story, like “…so you can enjoy family camping trips once again”. That sentence would have no place in a formal piece of writing, but it effectively creates a conversational tone in less than 10 words.

Revising for an Authoritative Tone

Authoritative writing goes hand in hand with educational, professional, or even technical writing. A client who wants an edit for authoritative tone most likely deals with serious or high-risk businesses, like law or the medical field. There are many resources available on how to write with authority. Editing for an authoritative tone follows the same rules as writing for one, with more emphasis on whittling away unnecessary parts.

  • Complete clarity. Some people associate long, unpronounceable words with highly formal writing, when in fact the opposite is true. Authoritative writing has absolutely no ambiguity – vocabulary is clear, and no words are left to interpretation. If you have to look up a definition or have a flashback to your SATs or GREs while editing, get rid of the word. There is always a clearer, simpler substitute.
  • Firm language. Going with the theme of clarity, another thing to check for is a lack of firm language. Words like should, could, maybe, and may have no place in a truly authoritative piece. As an editor, replace them with more decisive language, like must, need, is, or the appropriate verb. Of course, make sure it makes sense and don’t just do a Find and Replace.
  • Short sentences. A good rule for any type of writing, but especially so with authoritative writing, is one idea per sentence, and one point per paragraph. If a sentence has more than one comma, chances are you can break it into two sentences. This increases the professionalism of your tone and eliminates rambling.
  • No contractions. Contractions seriously detract from the professionalism of a piece of writing, because they represent the way we speak. Write out the words, except for in cases where the formality may be too over the top. Also, edit “his/her” and “and/or” to “his or her”, and usually just an “or” will suffice.

Consider All the Pieces

I can’t emphasize enough how past content from the business or brand are the most important resources to study while editing for tone or conducting a rewrite. However, this list is a great start to quickly checking off what can be a confusing or frustrating task.

Because the seemingly subjective nature of tone edits, an editor may not dedicate meaningful time to the task. But it is extremely important. Marketing specialists and brand managers should take a look at all the content surrounding their businesses and make sure the tone matches across the board. If not, try out some of the above tips and you may notice a difference.

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Amie Marse is the founder of Content Equals Money. She lives in Lexington, KY with her two dogs: Billie and Lily. She has been writing content for her web based clients since 2005. She launched Content Equals Money in Oct of 2010, home of conversion focused content writing services. She loves to chat about small business development and how to make content equal money!

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