Skip to main content
Updated date:

Write Effectively! Use Tone, Style and Pacing for Focus and Readability


Ann loves to offer advice on writing, to experiment with words and to encourage others to do so, occasionally issuing challenges of her own.

A Question of Wording

A fellow writer asked me to pen an in-depth article about using different words at the beginning of each sentence and about the impact of tone and writing style. I had mentioned that words at the beginning of each paragraph needed to be checked for repetition and varied as much as possible for the flow of reading. A new paragraph should reflect a change of subject or a different angle.

Your choice of words builds the fabric of your story.


If you look at any established author and analyse just one page of their work, you will see variation and realise what a difference it makes to the presentation, flow and impact of the text.

Repetition will make a text flat and boring. Changing the initial word of each sentence and of each paragraph, as well as varying the length of sentences and phrases, will change the overall effect.

Throw in some rhetorical questions as though the narrator is asking them even though there might be no dialogue. Think about the tone of the piece, and ask yourself if the style suits that tone and the setting of the story.

Let's look at the definitions of 'tone' and 'style' before considering some examples:

Tone is the way the author expresses his attitude through his writing. The tone can change very quickly or may remain the same throughout the story. Tone is expressed by your use of syntax, your point of view, your diction and the level of formality in your writing.

Style is the literary element that describes the ways that the author uses words - the author's word choice, sentence structure, figurative language and sentence arrangement all work together to establish mood, images and meaning in the text.

Interspersed below are quotations from famous writers offering their own observations on the art.

Wise Words from Ernest Hemingway

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.

— Ernest Hemingway

Example 1: Excerpt From 'Beggars Banquet' by Ian Rankin

Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin is best known for creating the stories about Rebus, later made into a popular television series called "Inspector Rebus". He is a writer of other novels and short stories, sometimes under the pen name of Jack Harvey.

'Beggars Banquet' is a collection of short stories by Rankin and the following excerpt comes from one of those, ‘Castle Dangerous’. Rebus is on the top of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.

We’re going to examine each paragraph. I’ve used inverted commas (“…”) for speech and quote marks (‘…’) for the excerpt, analysis of which will follow this section.

‘The parapet on which he stood was incredibly narrow; again, there was hardly room enough to squeeze past someone. How crowded did it get in the summer? Dangerously crowded? It seemed dangerously crowded just now, with only four people up here. He looked over the edge upon the sheer drop to the gardens below, where a massing of tourists, growing restless at being barred from the monument, stared up at him. Rebus shivered.

Not that it was cold. It was early June. Spring was finally late-blooming into summer, but that cold wind never left the city, that wind which never seemed to be warmed by the sun. It bit into Rebus now, reminding him that he lived in a northern climate. He looked down and saw Sir Walter’s slumped body, reminding him why he was here.

“I thought we were going to have another corpse on our hands there for a minute.” The speaker was Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes. He had been in conversation with the police doctor, who himself was crouching over the corpse.

“Just getting my breath back,” Rebus explained.

“You should take up squash.”

Read More From Owlcation

“It’s squashed enough up here.” The wind was nipping Rebus’s ears. He began to wish he hadn’t had that haircut at the weekend. “What have we got?”’

Scott Monument, Edinburgh (ref. Sir Walter Scott) has a series of viewing platforms, reached by a succession of narrow spiral staircases with views over Edinburgh & beyond.

Scott Monument, Edinburgh (ref. Sir Walter Scott) has a series of viewing platforms, reached by a succession of narrow spiral staircases with views over Edinburgh & beyond.

Analysis of the Excerpt

Look at the first word of each paragraph. The general rule that we should have a different word for successive paragraphs is followed. It’s permissible to use the same word perhaps two paragraphs later but it’s even better if they’re all different. Sometimes, however, a repetition can be used for emphasis - there’s always an exception! Rankin’s use of ‘dangerously crowded’ is one such. He’s making the reader think by focusing on the phrase. Is the parapet dangerous or are there suspicious circumstances?

In the first paragraph, Rankin is drawing attention to the lack of space. The ‘again’ is a reference to Rebus having already felt vulnerable high up on the monument. This serves to highlight Rebus’ fear rather than state a fact, as the word ‘seemed’ indicates. Short rhetorical questions in his head are further evidence of this, as is the impact of the final short sentence, ‘Rebus shivered.’ It contrasts with the longer preceding sentence describing the vertiginous view; that is the scene as it appears, whereas Rebus is feeling agitated and trying to work out what really happened.

‘Shivered’ leads on to the start of the second paragraph, ‘Not that it was cold.’ Again, a longer sentence describes the weather. His thoughts are caught up with the chill wind, so much so that he forgets why he’s there until he looks down to a body below which has fallen from the platform.

The subsequent words of the policeman echo the idea that Rebus is bothered, as he seems to suggest Rebus might go over the edge (though it’s possibly a joke). Various other references in the conversation remind us that it’s chilly up on the tower and that Rebus wants to leave. This creates an atmosphere without either men having to say they are cold or talk about the weather.

Use of Tone and Style in Writing

The conversation, along with the questions that Rebus asks himself ,‘How crowded did it get in the summer? Dangerously crowded?’, conveys the briskness of an investigation and of detectives trying to work out a scenario. How did the man fall? Did someone push him or was he jostled and fell accidentally? The tone is matter-of-fact. Rebus’ attitude is brusque and chill, suggested by the weather and his unwillingness to be high above ground.

The reader is presented with a sense of confusion because of the variety of scenarios and therefore is left thinking for himself as to what the outcome might be. The tone of the piece is undecided, worried, uneasy and even fearful. Questions hang over that particular scene and therefore we question as we read.The style mirrors that with short questions, repeated statements as though Rebus is going over the facts and the information before him, the brief remarks in the dialogue between the two men and the three short sentences in a row.

“Rebus shivered. Not that it was cold. It was early June.”

Using a staccato style gives an edge to the scene and makes us question it all ourselves. The use of ‘the power of three’ with those short sentences is effective. It delivers a rhythm that is satisfactory to the reader.

'Beggars Banquet' is a collection of short stories with an edge.

'Beggars Banquet' is a collection of short stories with an edge.

Example 2: Excerpt From 'Philomena' by Martin Sixsmith

'Philomena' was made into a powerful film starring Judi Dench. It is based on a true story of a young unmarried Irish mother having her child taken from her by nuns and given away. She spends much of her lifetime trying to trace her son.

Martin Sixsmith is a BBC presenter and journalist turned author. I’m using two consecutive excerpts from Chapter 9.

Mike (the lost son) is in a chemistry lesson at high school in the USA. He knows that he was born in Ireland and adopted. He wants to find out about his (and his adopted sister Mary’s) roots because he suffers from a feeling of being incomplete, calling it a ‘blight’ on his life. The experiment Mike and his fellow students are watching involves gases swirling around in a tube,

‘But Mike’s thoughts were wandering a path of their own. The swirling gases had crystallised a notion - it had long been on his mind - that powerful invisible forces were shaping his own existence: that chance collisions and impacts over which he had no control were deflecting his own trajectory, and that their effect was to a large extent a negative one.’

He thought of the fact that

‘there were 3.5 billion people in the world; now, watching at random, frenzied collisions inside the diffusion tube, he was haunted by the notion that he could have ended up in the hands of any one of them. It was not, he said to himself, that he resented [his adoptive parents]. What upset him was the lack of any reason why he should be there: nothing made it more natural for him and Mary to be in Rockford, Illinois than to be in Peking, China. He looked at his classmates, who had real mothers and fathers, and envied them because they were where they should be, anchored in the place life had reserved for them. He could never be in that place unless and until he found his mother. The image of his life as a particle in some cosmic Brownian motion preoccupied him now; the sense of his existence rootless and spinning out of control was always with him.’

Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.

— Ayn Rand

Analogy and Analysis Within This Excerpt

Mike’s thoughts are shifting from one thing to another, as though he is sifting through his life, putting pieces together, trying to make some sense of it all.

Sixsmith uses the chemical analogy of swirling gases to convey Mike’s thoughts whirling around his head creating a chemical reaction of their own. Just as he has no control over those gases in the tube, his life up to that point has been totally out of his control. The result is also referred to in scientific terms; ‘powerful forces’, ‘chance collisions and impacts’, ‘trajectory’ and ‘negative’.

Mike connects these thoughts with the geographical fact that ‘he could have ended up in the hands of any one of [the 3.5 billion people in the world].’ He is looking at his situation from a logical, scientific, analytical point of view. That his classmates have, in his view, a reason to be in their particular families, through birth, because they are ‘anchored in the place life had reserved for them’, makes him feel as though he has no ‘anchor’, no roots, that he is merely ‘a particle in some cosmic Brownian motion’. The result is him feeling that his life is ‘spinning out of control’.

It gives us the idea that he is searching for a different universe which he cannot reach but with which he feels an affinity. It is cleverly constructed. The use of a chemical reaction which happens regardless of human intervention emphasises Mike’s feeling of having no control over his existence. We have a string of introverted reactions; Mike is alone, has no identity and is desperate to find one. This awareness of belonging somewhere else is echoed in the following excerpt.


The subsequent scene is in an English class, where the teacher, a Catholic Sister, is reading poetry aloud to the class:

' "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning…”

Sister Brophy’s cracked, gentle intonation roused Mike from his sombre thoughts. He raised his head, suddenly alert. The English teacher sighed with pleasure.

“That’s one of my favourite poems by Yeats. Beautiful,” she mused. “William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and his Irish heritage features strongly in his poetry.”

Mike was dumbfounded. He had recognised something of himself in the poem Sister Brophy had read out: a smallness, a humility, a desire to escape from the life that was his prison and find the peace of elsewhere.

The bell sounded and the classroom emptied - except for Mike. Sister Trophy sat at her desk, rereading the poem with a smile on her face.

“Yes, Mike? Did you want something?”

Mike smiled eagerly.

“Do you have any other poems by … Yeats?” he ventured, slowly putting his books into his bag. Sister Brophy looked delighted.

“Why, Mike! I might have known you’d be interested…”

Mike had studied a little poetry before, but nothing like this. He spent the weekend lying on his bed, reading and rereading the Collected Poems Sister Brophy had given him. HIs brothers sneered and Doc [adoptive father] shook his head disapprovingly - he disliked and distrusted poetry - but Mary and Marge [adoptive mother] were enthralled by his dramatic recitations of the haunting, beautiful verse.

In the weeks that followed Sister Brophy introduced him to John Donne, Robert Frost, Baudelaire and countless others until his mind swam with gold-tinted images and his heart floated on a sea of words.’

Identity and Affinity

In this section, Mike shifts from being totally lost to finding something with which he can identify - a possibility of escape from his present situation. He begins to recognise ‘something of himself . . . a desire to escape from the life that was his prison and find the peace of elsewhere’, even before he is told the poet is Irish.

There is no successive repetition of initial words in the paragraphs but the frequent use of ‘Mike’ does occur. This reflects a shift in mood or tone from feeling lost and confused to focussing on himself, giving him a new sense of belonging, a feeling of identity and hope. His teacher devotes attention and time to him and empathises with his love of the poetry.

Dialogue breaks up the paragraphs. This in itself brings the scene to life; we are in the room. Mike is able to react to something tangible, something he can control, as in asking for more.

The Sister is almost apologetic that she should have realised he might feel akin to the poetry, being Irish. She encourages his interest by feeding his need for more. She recognises that, like her, he can identify with, and lose himself in, the verses.

Poignant and harrowing. A mother's quest for her son.

Poignant and harrowing. A mother's quest for her son.

Matching and Contrasting

Sixsmith focuses on the interest in an Irish poet; it’s not surprising that Mike should identify with Yeats' words. This time the vocabulary echoes the verse in that it becomes poetic, more settled, optimistic and content. Mike is awoken by the reading.

Even his family responds - the females positively but the males negatively. Is that an indication that Mike is more sensitive than the brothers and father because he has found that connection to his origins?

Sister Brophy is a stark contrast to the cruelty of some of the nuns whom his mother encountered. The tone is gentle. She has ‘gentle intonation’, she ‘sighed with pleasure’, she ‘mused’. There is no rush. She ‘sat at her desk, rereading the poem with a smile on her face.’

She provides him with more similar poetry, all of which has a profound effect on Mike; ‘his mind swam with gold-tinted images and his heart floated on a sea of words.’

Sixsmith’s style of longer sentences and gentle imagery mirrors the tone he wants to create.

Is This Happening in Your Writing?

So we see how tone and style can create

  • suspense and unease,
  • a feeling of not belonging
  • or a switch to contentment.

It’s the knack of making words and phrases match the scene and convey the feeling that you want to create.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Would a change of word or words be more suitable?
  • Am I conveying the emotions I want to create?
  • Am I matching the pace of each sentence, or the contrast of sentences, with the pace and contrast of the action?
  • Am I giving each new angle a paragraph of its own?

Let's start with the Bard himself:

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

— William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream)


So write like there’s no tomorrow. Sling words down on the page or the screen, just as they occur to you, however crazy, disjointed or impossible they might seem. Then go back to tighten them up and pare them down, all the while paying attention to your style and your tone.

Ponder on these words of Somerset Maugham:

“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary - it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”

Off you go! Have fun! Believe in yourself and listen to your muse!

Inspiration from Established Writers


‘Beggars Banquet’ by Ian Rankin, published by ISBN 978-8-8888-2030-9

‘Philomena’ by Martin Sixsmith, published by Pan Books, ISBN 978-1-4472-4522-3

© 2018 Ann Carr


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 16, 2020:

Thank you, Donna. I'm glad this was useful for you. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Best wishes to you too and I hope 2020 is kind to you.


Donna Rayne from Greenwood, Indiana on January 14, 2020:

I loved this article, I can use what I learned and apply it to my poetry and articles. Thank you for sharing this and helping so many people!

All my best,

Donna Rayne

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on August 08, 2019:

Two visits today! Thank you, Mel.

Yes, I agree completely that great writers don't follow rules, though probably the most basic as it might be difficult to understand otherwise! In fact, they don't need rules do they? Their talent and artistic licence give them permission to do as they please. They have the ability to enthral, 'manipulating' words, a word you chose so aptly.

Thanks for your contribution.


Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 07, 2019:

I think that great writers don't follow rules. Perhaps breaking rules is a rule, as long as you do it in an artistic way, which is impossible to quantify. I think the great ones feel the unidentifiable muse, that moves them to manipulate words the way they do. Nonetheless, we who are struggling to establish ourselves need a primer, a place to start from, and you have provided one. Great work!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on May 14, 2019:

William: Thank you for your kind comment. We all need reminding about choices, style and genre, no matter how good we might be!


William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on May 13, 2019:

Another useful article. Thank you. You writing articles always make me think about what I do when I write. Improvement is always possible. ;-)

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on November 08, 2018:

Hello Dianna. Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, the classics are great and fortunately we have some super modern and contemporary writers too. Good to see you!


Dianna Mendez on November 07, 2018:

Wonderful article on this topic. I like how you use examples to teach. I look to the classic authors as examples of writing. They wrote so creatively!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 30, 2018:

Hello Nell! Thanks for the comments. Good luck with the book! Sounds interesting.


Nell Rose from England on October 30, 2018:

Really interesting and useful. I tend to write the same word in my paragraphs and then edit them with something different or much more compelling. I also love Yeats, must be the irish in me! I am writing another book at the moment. My main book, Gypsies was easy as it was based on memories from my time living with Gypsies, but this new one will need your ideas on here! bookmarked, thanks

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 29, 2018:

Thank you, Eric. I love that you chatted with your son about that quote. I also love your 'Words are the fruit of our thoughts, and oh so delicious.' Brilliant!

I appreciate your support, Eric.


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 29, 2018:

Ann this is such a good one. This morning we chatted/learned together about this quote; “All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary - it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”

The boy said he got it, then retracted as he saw a tough quiz question coming. Words are the fruit of our thoughts, and oh so delicious.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 29, 2018:

Thank you, John. Yes, many authors bridged the gap between prose and poetry and some a lot more besides.

Your voice and style come through loud and clear, very engaging, and I certainly don't think you should change it at all. We can all improve of course. In fact I think no one ever reaches their best, it's the striving that keeps us on our toes!


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 29, 2018:

Thank you, Verlie, for your lovely comments. I'm going back to add 'all of the above' to the poll, as both you and John have asked for it! I originally added a small list of authors to each category but there were too many!

I don't know the Robert Louis Stevenson book but I'm going to have a search for info on it.


John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 28, 2018:

Ann, this is a wonderful guide to writing. I loved the examples you included by those authors, and Ian Rankin is a favourite of mine too. Like Verlie, I would have liked to tick “all the above” in the poll.

There are so many writers who inspire me. Poets such as A.B.”Banjo Paterson, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Alan Poe, Kenneth Slessor, authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain. I included Kipling and Poe as poets though they were much more. It is just their poetry had more impact on me than their stories did.

My writing, especially prose, will never reach the lofty heights of any of them but one thing I think I succeed at is having my own voice and style that I have been told comes over as engaging and enjoyable to read. If that is in fact the case I won’t change that, but I can still constantly improve it by using articles like this as a guide.

I am glad you wrote this, so thank you Rodric for the prompt.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 28, 2018:

Ann this is a fantastic writer's guide. Enjoyable to read, really full of helpful style tips, and visually appealing. What a beautifully built page. I loved the citing of so many brilliant authors ideas, and works. Your 6 year old grandson's write is adorable by the way. In answer to your poll question, I would to choose 'all of the above'. And add some of course, too many to add, so many books, so little time. Been thinking a lot about Robert Louis Stevenson lately for some reason. I had a little Golden Book of his poems as a child, and it must have really impressed me, but I still haven't found his poem that's haunting me, or the book.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Thanks, manatita. Yes, I enjoy some of those authors too, except I find Dickens rather exhausting in his descriptions. Mark Twain's observation and wit is amazing. Writing does come naturally when one practises a lot but it takes a while to start to master the art or at least to become confident in one's abilities.

Thanks for the input.


manatita44 from london on October 28, 2018:

I find travel writers exceptionally good. Of course those I read at school stand out. Dickens, Shakespeare, Webster, Goldsmith, Chaucer … Golding, poets like Longfellow, Blake, Kipling, Milton and Keats … much More.

I like the Russian Nicolai Gogal and the Americans Whitman and Samuel Clemens. Quite a few more.

You have covered the piece excellently and it was nice reading some of Rankin's pieces. When I did prose, I mean a lot of prose, the feel of what should be done would just come to me, naturally. I always say that one should read a lot. This great input returns to us when we need it.

Right now I dream in the realm of creativity and I pull from the stars. Suits my poetry best. Much Love, my Dear.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Venkatachari M: Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad this helps you. As always, the answer to good writing is read, read, read. We can't ever read too much!


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Thanks, Flourish. Yes it's easy to get bogged down sometimes but I think if we have it instilled at an early age, then it becomes second nature so we don't need to think about it too much. It's like spelling; I know I'm quite good at that but if I doubt a word then I find myself coming up with all sorts of ridiculous combinations! Gut instinct works wonders.

I find that if I go with my ideas first, then go back to the structure etc, the flow doesn't suffer too much.

Thanks for your valuable input.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Hello Eric! I'm amazed an eight-year-old stuck this out that long! Good for him. Never mind the white wall - if you look at it long enough, if will present you with shapes and colours from the depths of your mind. Have a great weekend, Eric!


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Hello Dolores! Yes, I love re-reading my favourites and it's a thrill to find a new writer who has the talent to transport us to places and mixtures of emotion. I often go back to my childhood books too!

Thank you for your comments.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Thank you, Mary. I try to focus on 'good practice' but there's nothing like reading the best writers and taking lessons from them. I appreciate your comments. Good to see you today.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 28, 2018:

Thank you, Liz, for your encouraging comment.


Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on October 28, 2018:

Very beautifully explained the whole art of writing. I am much lagging in all this tone and style and, Ann, your article provides me much guidance for improving myself.

Thanks for this wonderful post.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 27, 2018:

My mother was an English major so she drilled this into me early and often. Sometimes I tend to overthink or obsess a bit about word choice and sentence structure, and this slows my writing down. Your examples illustrate your points well, and I enjoyed the Somerset Maugham quote in particular.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on October 27, 2018:

Ann, class is in session each Monday and Tuesday and on the 1st day of each new month.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 27, 2018:

Sorry but my eight year old was only good until your capsule on about "What is style". We will come back. Personally I needed the tutorial. Words in context bring a well of good. That danged white wall is bugging me so he gets paints to color it strange. A mirage maybe.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 27, 2018:

Hi Ann - I love how you gave examples of the kind of writing that you are talking about. It's made me think of my favorite novels and how the words were woven into a perfect rhythm that created an atmosphere. And it makes me want to go back and read them again.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 27, 2018:

I am now reading John Irivng's, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I have read irving before but not this book and I am amazed at how he can describe an ordinary life and days and weave it into an interesting novel. Your hub is like having a lesson on writing. Thank you.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 27, 2018:

This is a very helpful article for aspiring writers. Definitely one to bookmark.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 27, 2018:

Thank you, Linda, for your kind comments and your support. I hope this is what Rodric wanted! It was something I was getting round to anyway...

It's time I visited your cookery classes again, so I'll be over soon.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on October 27, 2018:

Thank you, bill! I wish you a great weekend too; don't work too hard!


Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on October 27, 2018:

Ann, this is simply wonderful. I will bookmark it and return to it again and again. Your examples and analyses are spot-on. Very well done indeed. I am certain that Rodric will be happy.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 27, 2018:

So important! I picked up a book by a local author; there was a display of her latest book in the store. I opened it up and read the first two paragraphs. . . six sentences began with the world "I".....I was blown away by such a simply mistake. Such a total lack of creativity and grasp of the English language.

Anyway, all to say I am with you 100% regarding this article.

Busy day ahead, so I will bid you farewell. I hope you have a brilliant weekend, my friend.


Related Articles