Tone is one of the most difficult things to pin down when writing. For me, it's also often the most fun. But how do you discuss tone with your freelance copywriter?
Because this is a topic that attracts generalisations. Probably partly because it can also be difficult to find the words to describe exactly what you want.
Plus, what is tone anyway? What determines how you sound on the page or screen? Why is it even important?
Let's start talking about how to talk about tone with your copywriter, freelance or otherwise:
What is tone in writing?
Sometimes called “tone of voice”, your tone in writing is usually understood to be the general mood or essential quality of a piece. It can also convey your attitude about the subject or the reader.
On top of the type of copy you're writing – sales copy for a brochure, a blog article discussing a specific issue, a how-to piece for your website – some factors that govern the tone you end up creating will include:
1) Sentence length
Longer sentences can make a piece appear more thoughtful or lend your writing a gentler tone. Shorter sentences can appear more straight-talking. Or create impact.
A mix of sentence lengths in a single paragraph is often desirable. It makes writing more readable. But how long those sentences are and where they are placed will affect the tone of a piece.
2) Paragraph length
Left to my own devices, I like short paragraphs. The shorter the better.
Short paragraphs encourage readability more than almost any other aspect of a piece. Even if this sometimes does mean playing fast and loose with grammar rules in copywriting.
That said, paragraph length does combine with sentence length to create tone. They need individual consideration.
It's also the case that some types of copy, such as whitepapers or news articles, may have different allowances or expectations for paragraph length.
3) Word choice
Perhaps most obviously, your choice of words is probably the biggest driver of your written tone.
On the simplest level, this might be whether you choose to say “got” or “received”. It could also be whether you demand attention or invite it.
Almost every single word is a choice that affects the final tone of a piece of writing.
How to discuss tone with a freelance copywriter
But how do you boil these ideas down into something you can use to instruct someone you are employing to do some copywriting for your business?
I would suggest:
1) Maybe go beyond “friendly yet professional”
As a freelance copywriter talking with a client about tone for the first time, I can almost sense the words “friendly yet professional” floating in the direction of the conversation.
Honestly, that's not a problem. This is probably the default setting for most business communications. It's absolutely fine. It's not always very interesting though.
The tone you use in your communications is a great opportunity to show off something about your business. This might be your deep knowledge of your field. It could be that you always try to act thoughtfully. Or that you're good fun to work for!
If you have things you believe strongly as an individual, business, or brand, it's worth talking them over with your copywriter, whether they're a freelancer or not.
Because even if you really do want “friendly yet professional”, knowing more about you is always helpful. If your copywriter knows you also are keenly environmentally conscious or believe in giving it to your clients straight, they can build it into the tone of your communications.
2) Provide samples (of your previous projects)
Some of the clearest tonal targets for your next piece will be previous work you've had done (or written yourself) that you like the tone of.
If someone put you on the spot, you might not be able to pin down precisely what you like about them.
But if you know that this is how you want to communicate, send it along to any copywriting agency you're planning to work with as an example of what you're looking for.
3) Send examples (of other companies' work)
The same holds true for work you've seen elsewhere and thought, “Now why can't I get writing like that?”
It might be because you've worked with the wrong copywriting service. It might be because you worked with a great one but they didn't know that's what you wanted (maybe you didn't either).
Some places you might be able to find examples of what you're looking for could include:
Your competitors – you don't want to sound identical, but maybe you like their framing of a certain issue.
Other brands in general – I love Apple's copywriting. Less convinced about some of their products.
Articles in magazines – even if it's a different kind of writing it might still be illuminating.
4) Understand the feedback process
If you've never worked together before, I'd be very surprised if a freelance copywriter or any other creative hits the exact tone you're looking for right out of the gate.
It does happen. Especially if you're looking for something “friendly yet professional”. Or if you can provide some good samples or examples of what you want.
But more often than not, copywriting is a process. This means giving good feedback to your creative is important. I include a fair number of revisions in my copywriting services for FREE for a good reason.
For most pieces, it doesn't normally take more than a couple of revisions to get the tone you're looking for. For regular blog writing services, the first one is usually the one where we nail this down.
Understanding that the first piece you're sent is open to feedback and change is important though.
5) If you don't ask, you might not get
It's very hard to hit a target in the dark. If you don't tell your copywriter what you want, they probably won't guess that they should be aiming to create it for you.
In my experience, most small business owners are quite happy to chat about this sort of thing. They often have big dreams about where they want their business to be going. They know the tone of their communications is a part of that.
Larger businesses might have thought about this already. They might have set brand tone guidelines to follow. If so, no problem.
However, I have seen some larger concerns struggle when there are one or two key decision makers that refuse to say what they're looking for (possibly they don't know) and everyone else is too worried to express their own opinion.
This means requests for just a hint at where that target might be are met with blankness. Then when a first draft is produced, a dozen rounds of revisions are needed because the creative team was never told where the target was in the first place.
6) Say if you haven't decided yet (it's not a problem)
But what if you don't know what you want just yet? I've worked with many clients over the years. Those who aren't yet set on the tone they want tend to fall into one of these camps of thought:
“Still thinking about it” – many people aren't sure what tone they want. For some, us working together was the little prod they needed to think about their comms aims. We worked the tone out together. For others, “friendly yet professional” really was what they were after.
“Know it when I see it” – some people are sure they know what they want, but can't provide any details. This means we're working towards something pretty nebulous. If you're happy with a bunch of revisions (and we don't start going mad with the number), that's okay by me. You'll know it when you see it.
The important thing is to be clear about what you want upfront. You can always ask. And if you don't know, be clear about that too.
Work with your copywriter to create the tone
You might have something very specific in mind for the tone of your business communications. You might have some examples. You might not know. But you're sure you'll know it when you see it.
So why not talk it over? Ask how feedback and revisions work if you're not quite sure it's there yet. Whatever the case is, if you're working with a freelance copywriter, odds on they'll have discussed tone many times before.
If that's the kind of conversation you're ready to start having, fill in the form below or reach me at email@example.com for an obligation-free chat.