Setting the tone

One humdrum story from the 1940s told in more than 90 different ways offers an exercise in writing styles and tone of voice. Jim Davies finds plenty of inspiration for his briefs in it

Jim Davies

If you are looking to sharpen your understanding of tone of voice, may I point you in the direction of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. This isn’t some rather-pleased-with-itself ’how to’ book brought to you by a business publisher with a list of titles on office feng shui and water-cooler etiquette. It is actually a slim volume first published in 1947 by a remarkable French intellectual and poet.

Exercises in Style is the same rather humdrum story told in 96 different ways. The narrator observes a thin-necked man accusing a fellow passenger of jostling him deliberately on a crowded bus. Then, when a seat becomes free, he nabs it. Later on the same day in a different part of town, the thin-necked man is seen again with a friend who tells him he should have another button sewn on to his overcoat. That’s it. A slight tale, it must be said, but one that weighs the mundanity of everyday existence with heavy significance in the manner of Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre.

What is astonishing, however, is what Queneau does with his basic ingredients. He bakes them and grills them and slow-cooks them. He adds spices and seasoning and delicious embellishments. He turns them into something quite different each time simply by adopting a different writing style – or tone of voice.

The various chapter headings include Comedy, Official Letter, Cockney, Blurb, Haiku, Noble, Past, Present and Hesitation. A particular favourite of mine is a shorter effort titled Interjections, which reads ’Psst! H’m! Ah! Oh! Hem! Ah! Ha! Hey! Well! Oh! Pooh! Poof! Ow! Oo! Ouch! Hey! Ey! H’m! Pffft! Well! Hey! Pooh! Oh! H’m! Right!’

Even through the mists of time and translation, you can feel the enjoyment Queneau gets from this satisfying experiment. The range of effect and emotion he achieves is revealingly broad – some versions are flat and disinterested, others over-blown and emotional. Some are contrived and stylised, others raw and heart-felt.

It is good to see the more playful side of tone of voice at work here, and there is another, perhaps more surprising, place you’ll find it – Facebook. Swing down to the bottom of your home page, and bottom left there’s a link called ’language’. As you would expect, this allows you to change the prompts and menu to any language under the sun, as well as different styles of English. There are UK and US options, but also ’Pirate’, which puts some ’arr’ into your typebars.

What is useful about both these examples, is that they play out different voices, so you can use them to demonstrate different linguistic effects in action. In writing for design, I find the problem with most tone-of-voice briefs is that they simply use a list of adjectives to describe the required persona. Top of the pile is always ’friendly’ – you’d assume this is a given. OK, maybe you’d make an exception for a snotty fashion label or nasty Goth S&M emporium. But words like ’friendly’, ’enthusiastic’, ’informed’, ’witty’ or ’authoritative’ are subjective and therefore totally open to interpretation. For ’friendly’, are we talking a cursory pat on the back or a full-on snog? Is ’enthusiastic’ a thumbs up or a gushing encomium?

The best tone-of-voice brief I’ve had was from a designer who’s also a highly accomplished writer. He’d dash out a couple of example paragraphs, explain his rationale, and ask you to copy the style.

Unfortunately, Renaissance men and women are thin on the ground these days. But if ever you are after a working example, you could do worse than turn to Queneau’s Exercises.

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content

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