Let’s begin by asking two questions about tone and style. What are they and how do you “polish” them during the revision process?

What is Tone?

A graphic that reads, “I am away polishing spoons, forks, and knives”

Source: Polishing Break, Silver Spoon Sokpop, Wikimedia

Tone is the author’s particular attitude, either stated or implied in the writing. So how do you “polish” tone during the revision process? First, you need to write in a way that is suitable for both your purpose and audience. According to the authors of 5 Steps to a 5: Writing the AP English Essay, a semiformal tone is expected in most essays that students are assigned. This means that you need to evaluate and revise your drafts to make sure they have the characteristics of a semiformal tone:

take notes icon When you are striving for standard vocabulary and a semiformal or formal tone, you should stay away from slang and colloquialisms. (That means that we Texans must avoid “y’all.”) In the sentence below, think about substitutions you could make to achieve a semiformal tone suitable for academic writing. The colloquial expressions have been underlined. In your notes, rewrite the sentence in a semiformal tone. When you’re finished, check your understanding to see a possible revision.

Freaked out by the breakup with my girlfriend, I stuffed my face at the nearest hamburger joint. Then, I decided she wasn’t worth it. If I could just think outside the box, I was sure I’d get another chick in a nanosecond.


Check Your Understanding
Sample Responses:

Although answers will vary, the same sentence revised for a semiformal tone might read something like this:

In agony over the breakup with my girlfriend, I overate at the nearest hamburger restaurant. Then, I decided she just didn't appreciate me. If I could just think imaginatively, I was sure I'd find a new girlfriend quickly.

In addition to substituting standard vocabulary for slang or colloquial expressions, the contracted forms (wasn’t and I’d) were replaced with was not and I would. The expression think outside the box might also be classified as a cliché, so it was substituted with an original word choice, imaginatively. These changes give the essay a more appropriate tone for academic writing.

= A photograph of a sign reading: “Do it With Style”

Source: “Style highly, yes.”, gak, Flickr

What is Style?

Style is the way something is written or how it is written. Many of the words that describe tone can also describe style.

For the next exercise, read the famous first lines from several novels. Classify each one as “formal” or “informal” and make your choice from the pull-down menu to see the correct response, the title, and author of each piece.

icon for interactive exercise

A photograph of the Cathedral Aguascalientes in Mexico, a typical Spanish colonial cathedral with two tall spires

Source: Catedral Aguascalientes México, Ewen Roberts, Wikimedia

A photograph of the Hikone castle in Japan. It has several layers of swept gables typical of classic Japanese architecture.

Source: Hikone castle14s2400, 663highland, Wikimedia

A photograph of the United States Supreme Court courthouse. It is a White marble building that was designed to look Greco Roman in that it has large columns and an elaborately decorated façade.

Source: US Supreme Court DC, dbking, Wikimedia

How do you polish style as part of the revision process? Pictured above are several different styles of architecture. Style is a distinctive and identifiable form in the arts (i.e., music, dance, sculpture, and literature). Style is also a way of doing something.

During the process of revision, you polish style by evaluating the decisions you made when you first drafted your essay. Hopefully, you kept your audience and purpose in mind from the start. Think of polishing and revision like this: in crafting the right style, artists rely on many tools and techniques. For example, a hairdresser might create a style with her scissors, comb, and hairdryer just as the child pictured below applies dye to Easter eggs and makes stylistic decisions to achieve a certain look. The hairdresser uses her tools in the same way a painter selects color from a palette to create a certain image and appeal.

Photograph of a hand held hair dryer

Source: Hairdryer 20101109, Batholith (talk), Wikimedia

Photograph of a child dyeing Easter eggs

Source: Dyeing Easter Eggs, tuxstrom, Flickr

Photograph of a palate of watercolors and paints with a brush

Source: Brush and watercolours, Jennifer Rensel, Wikimedia

Many stylistic tools and techniques are available to you during the revision process. You might tap the tools of diction (including figurative language), specific detail, sentence structure, and tone. Your style is the result of how you use these tools to present your ideas.

You must not forget audience and purpose, though. The hairdresser wouldn’t create the same style for your grandmother as she would for you. When you’re completing a writing assignment or taking the language part of a standardized test, aim for a style that is neither too informal (conversational) nor too formal (stuffy). A semiformal tone is usually just right.