Writing Exercise: Tonal Mix ‘n Match

Hello, loyal (or occasional, or brand-new) readers!  You’re all craving some good news, right? We may be smack in the middle of the times that try men’s souls, but there is a silver lining to it all, which is that I’ll be updating the blog more often now that I’m stuck at home!  There, you feel better now, don’t you?

For the most part, though, this is not a post about COVID-19.  Because COVID-19 doesn’t write, and for real, we all need some normalcy in our lives.  Instead, this is a post about tone. What it is, how to set it, and most importantly, how to practice it.

Tone is one of the most important, and also the most difficult, elements of effective reading and writing.  As a reader, recognizing and identifying tone helps you to find meaning in someone else’s work. As a writer, tone sets the expectations for your piece and guides the reader along an emotional journey.  Skillful control of tone helps you connect to your reader in ways that feel almost physical, like a handshake, a hug, a tweak to the nose, or a punch to the spleen. Poor control of tone can make your reader laugh when you were hoping to make her cry.  (For some of the greatest examples available of how not to achieve tone, poke around the works of Amanda McKittrick Ros, the Tommy Wiseau of novelists.)

In writing, we use tone to refer to the attitude or character of a piece, kind of a catch-all for how the thing makes you feel.  But I find it useful to think about tone using its definition from music, because the very best writing out there has an undeniable musical quality to it.  When a musician talks about tone, he’s talking not just about what the sound is, but the feeling of the sound.  A flute has a different inherent tone from a trumpet, and a composer will assign parts to players based on the tone she wants for the piece.  A skilled instrumentalist must also be a master of tone, and can play notes that sound warm and rich or cacophonous and violent, depending on what is called for to convey the desired feeling of the piece.  

The same is true of writing.  As a reader, recognizing and identifying tone helps you to find meaning in someone else’s work.  As a writer, the setting of tone makes or breaks your work. Tone either gets the audience on your side early, or alienates them from the get-go, and whether it succeeds depends not on the tone you chose but how well you put it into practice.  And, like tone in music, tone in writing is hard.  If you have not mastered the basics of the craft, you won’t be able to do bupkus with tone.

The French horn has the most glorious tone of any instrument, when played by the three people in the world who can actually produce it.

Once you have mastered the basics, however, you develop competence with tone the same way the musician does.  You practice. You play around with words and sounds. You gain skill with imagery, and you get a feel for which sorts of images are likely to be evocative for which emotions.  To help my students practice tone, I created the Tonal Mix ‘n Match.  Like so many of my best moments in the classroom, I created it more or less on the fly when I needed to kill 45 minutes, and because of that, it requires almost no prep time and no materials you don’t already have in the classroom.*  All you need is a set of 3” x 5” index cards, five for each participant.


  1. Give your students five simple declarative sentences.  The sentences must be completely neutral statements.  None of the sentences should be longer than five or six words.  The ones I gave my students were:
  • He had blue eyes.
  • She wore a yellow dress.
  • I wanted to go to sleep.
  • We laughed at the clown.
  • They walked around the block.
  1. Now give your students five tone words.  These should be fairly basic tones (no “recalcitrant” or “obsequious” when we’re first getting started) that your students could recognize.  If you need inspiration, this list has some pretty good ones.  I gave my students:
  • Romantic
  • Sinister
  • Sarcastic
  • Hostile
  • Mystical
  1. Your students should now rewrite each sentence in one of the five available tones.  One sentence goes on each index card, and they should use each tone AND each sentence exactly once.  The rewriting rules are:
  • The rewritten sentence must convey the same main idea as the original.  For example, he has to have blue eyes, not purple eyes, and they can’t change “we laughed at the clown” to “we murdered the clown.”
  • They can add, subtract, or change any words they want within the sentence, as long as they don’t alter the main idea.
  1. Once the students have written their new sentences (allow at least fifteen minutes), collect each set of cards and redistribute the sets amongst the group.  Each student then has to figure out which sentence in their new set of cards goes with each tone word.
  1. There are several ways you can wrap up the activity.  I like to have each student share a favorite from the new set of cards they received.  I then ask students to consider the following wrap-up questions and write a page of reflection that answers each:
  • What strategies did the person whose cards you have use to alter the tone of their sentences?
  • What strategies did you use to do the same?
  • Which of those strategies worked the best?

Students’ reflections reveal that, even if they felt that they had crashed and burned in the midst of the exercise, they have learned a lot about tone in those 45 or so minutes.  Some of the most common revelations:

  1. As with most matters of writing, the bulk of the work in the creation of tone is done by nouns and verbs.  Students who tried to create tone by chaining adjectives together (“She wore a beautiful, cheerful, sunny yellow dress”) realized that they had been less successful than their classmates who used metaphors, similes, or other comparative devices.  They realized how much connotation and association matter, and how much difference there is between “a dress the color of a daffodil” and “a dress the color of an old bruise.” A few students did especially well by adding contextual details. One of my favorites from this set: “Her father had hated yellow, so on the morning of his funeral, she put on her sunniest yellow dress.”  Ouch. Similarly, students saw how much they could change the direction of the sentence simply by changing “they walked around the block” to “they drifted around the block” or “they strolled around the block” or “they stalked around the block.”
  1. You’ve probably heard that writing comedy is harder than writing tragedy, and students discovered that not only is this true, but that writing romance is harder than either of them.  Students were able to rattle off sinister and hostile sentences with relative ease, and most of them got through their mystical sentences in one piece, but the exercise shuddered to a halt when it came time to be sarcastic or romantic.  Both humor and romance require the appearance of effortlessness and spontaneity, and these are a struggle for students used to thinking about everything.  The students who did the best at these kept it very small, rather than going for grand sweeping romance. One of my favorites: “He had eyes exactly the color of those of Paul Hollywood, whom she secretly found attractive.”
  1. Adverbs are not your friends.  Short sentences are your friends.  Packing your sentence with descriptive words means that you have an overstuffed sentence.  There is nothing that “We laughed cruelly at the clown who was crying sadly” achieves that “We snickered at the crying clown” does not.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!  Write to me via the contact page if you would like a template.

*And for those of you about to switch to remote teaching, you can easily adapt it to fit your new Google Meet-based class!

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