Lesson No. 2: Tone in Personal Essays

orange tone




The writer’s job is not to force the reader into feeling a certain way about a piece of writing, but instead should aim towards providing the reader a chance to have her own reaction. There is never a correct emotional response to any piece of writing. What the reader needs is not to be told how to feel about a certain event or character but to be able to have a feeling about it, regardless of the author’s intentions. The key here is to get the reader emotionally involved with a text, which can only happen if you give her the space to consider the story and the language used to tell it. 

When you edit a piece of your writing or read someone else’s writing, start recognizing how you feel towards each scene. Where do you get bored? Where do you start laughing? Where do you get confused? Where do you feel on edge? Where do you feel safe? Where do you feel a connection to the narrator? By constantly being aware of your emotional reaction to a piece of writing you will be able to recognize how and when the tone and feel of a piece succeeds, and when it starts to stumble, as well. 

Aside from the many different word choices an author can use in order to set the tone for a piece that will keep the reader reading, there are also a variety of sentence structures that can help to do this. Through the technical aspects of writing (sentence structure, punctuation, description, tense, point of view, etc) the author’s voice and established tone can be fully developed. Short sentences for serious statements. Run on sentences for an extended emotional description. Sentences with many commas to make that easy, flowing sort of a feel. A paragraph with a different structure for each sentence can create a sense of confusion or indecisiveness. Past tense can be reflective while present tense can feel urgent. First person for vulnerability, or perhaps third person for an empowering, “communal” feel. There are thousands of ways in which tone can be set through the actual structure of a sentence and word choice, too. What all of this creates is a reader who connects with the text.


Sometimes tone can be creepy, too.

creepy peppers



  1. What sort of tone do you think Hornbacher conveys in “Rebecca?” What word choices did Hornbacher make in order to set this tone? Are there any turns of phrases or transitions that urge you to continue to read? Why or why not? 
  1. In what ways does Purpura use the setting, the landscape, the actual location of a scene as a way to compliment and emphasize the overall feel? What was your reaction to the piece while you read it? What “feel” did you get from it? 
  1. As Sei Shonagon describes more of those “hateful things,” how does her tone and approach to these things shift? At which points in the essay are you unsure if she is being sarcastic or judgmental? And does this matter? Finally, how would you describe Shonagon’s tone, as well as the word choices she uses in order to create this specific tone
  1. In what ways does Lindy West’s biting article about the Titanic mirror Shonagon’s craft techniques? In what ways do they differ? As a reader, did either of these essays feel more accessible/welcoming of the reader than the other? 


Writing Exercises

  1. Find a picture that is symbolic for a big event in your life. Looking at the picture, describe its importance to your life, what was going on that day, who was in your life at the time, and what you were thinking that day about what the future would hold for you. Write all of these things down for 10 minutes, but write in the second person. 
  1. Think of a place that holds a lot of meaning for you. Is it a place where you cried or one where you felt safe? Use your emotional response to this place in order to set the tone of the landscape. Use the actual description of the setting instead of reflections on how you feel about that place when you write about it. 
  1. Write about what happened to you yesterday for 20 minutes. For the first 10 minutes use run-on sentences. For the second 10 minutes tell the exact some story but use very short sentences. Compare these two pieces of writing. Does the tone change? Which one feels more urgent? Was your word choice different? 
  1. For ten minutes, make your own list of hateful things. Allow yourself to have a bit of an attitude as you compose this in-depth list. Also, let your thoughts jump around, and just follow along. Give yourself some unrestricted space within your mind to explore. 


Chelsey-Clammer-FacultyChelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago and MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop program. She has been published in The RumpusAtticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is an award-winning and Pushcart Prize nominated essayist. 




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