How to Identify Tone in an Essay

The tone of an essay can be somber, satirical, passionate or any other attitude the writer conveys.
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Tone is another word for attitude. The attitude of a writer is reflected in the choice of words, the phrasing and the overall style and organization of the essay. The tone must be appropriate to the subject and purpose of the essay. An informative essay on an earthquake disaster, for example, will have a serious, respectful tone, whereas an essay on a local hero will have an admiring tone. In a persuasive essay, the tone and attitude will be calculated to convince the reader to agree with the writer.

Read the essay once straight through without stopping to analyze. This gives an overall sense of the essay.

Read the essay critically this time, annotating it by making notes in the margins. Ask questions such as: What is the purpose of this essay? What is the topic. What is the main idea? How does the writer support the ideas? What kinds of words and images are used?

Make notes on the responses to the questions you asked in Step 2 and list examples from the essay. Pay special attention to the details, including vocabulary choices and sentence styles.

Analyze your notes. Review the subject, purpose and style of the essay, including the word choice and the kinds of examples used. Ask the questions: What is the attitude of this writer to the subject? How does the writer feel about the topic?

Consult a list of words that describe various tones and decide which one best fits the essay. Capital Community College Foundation Guide to Grammar and Writing lists some examples: informal or formal; light or serious; subjective or objective, to name a few. (See link in References.)

Anna Story has written professionally since 1974. Her poetry appears in "Black Fly Review" and "Kentucky Poetry Review," among others. Her essays are included in "Resilience," "Students’ Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters" and "The Southern Quarterly." She holds a M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina.