Writing style is a result of voice and tone. Adjust your style to meet user needs. It influences whether and how people engage with content.
Adapt writing style with tone and voice
Writing style describes the way you express ideas in content. The tone and voice you use influence the writing style for any type of content.
Tone is the way you express ideas. It includes the words you use, the way you put them together and their level of formality.
- By registering with us, you can access a range of member services online. [Standard tone]
- Online services are only available to members who have registered. [Formal tone]
Voice captures who is writing – a persona people understand when they engage with the content. Voice can be objective and institutional or personal and friendly.
- Over the next 3 years, the department will bolster its investment in cyber security. [Institutional voice, standard tone]
- Our investment in workforce capability will create an ‘army of cyber experts’. [Personal voice, standard tone]
Adapt tone and voice to engage users, so the content can meet their needs. For example, briefs for ministers will use a different tone and voice to a speech or information on a website.
Align tone to context
Tone is created by 4 elements:
- choice of words
- level of formality.
Word choice will influence how users respond to you and your organisation. The smallest details, such as using contractions, can affect how content comes across.
The way the user relates to the content can depend on what pronouns feature in sentence structure.
The second person (using the pronoun ‘you’) is active, direct and personal. It can be more engaging for people reading and using government content.
Using the first person singular (the pronoun ‘I’) is rarely suitable in government content, except in correspondence.
Grammar is about sentence structure. It affects the way your writing sounds and how easy it is to read.
Formality is about how closely you follow standard English and how familiar the tone of content needs to be.
Choose how formal tone should be
The appropriate level of formality depends on what the relationship is between content and its user. There are 3 levels of formality:
A formal tone creates a distance between the content’s persona and the content’s reader.
An informal tone suggests a relationship that is more casual and intimate.
A standard tone sits between these two. It is appropriate for most government content. It creates little distance, but not too much familiarity, into the relationship with readers.
- Guests should be seated 15 minutes before the performance starts. [Formal]
- Why don’t you come in early and grab a seat before things get started? [Informal]
Standard style is the easiest for many people to understand.
Please arrive 15 minutes before the concert starts. [Standard]
Formality does not affect plain language.
- doesn’t use contractions
- is literal – words are used with their dictionary meaning
- doesn’t use metaphor, slang or idioms
- often uses the third person (he, she, they, them).
Legal writing, policies, reports and ministerial letters often adopt a formal tone. You can also use it in emails and letters when you have not yet met the person you are writing to.
Formal tone is used in ceremonies and to show respect for someone in authority.
Standard tone combines formal and informal tone. Most people find standard tone easiest to understand.
- can use contractions and personal pronouns
- doesn’t use metaphors, idioms or slang.
You will probably use standard tone for most government content. This includes:
- emails and letters
- online government services
- corporate communications
- media releases
Informal tone uses contractions and personal pronouns.
Informal tone can use metaphors and idioms, which can have a negative effect on inclusion. Metaphors and idioms are not plain language.
You should not use slang when writing on behalf of government.
Identify the right voice
Voice is sometimes called a persona. It refers to the personality implicit in the content.
Voice can be objective, formal and institutional, or it can be personal and friendly. The right voice for content will depend on the persona fit for the content.
Voice and the elements of tone are closely connected. Voice can create a tone of equality (a relationship between equals) or one that assumes authority (power is unequal).
A voice, or persona, can be:
- supportive, friendly, positive and empowering
- expert, impartial and balanced
- serious and authoritative, but reasonable, legitimate and measured.
Check your organisation’s style guide to see if it has advice about the organisation’s voice.
If not, a safe place to start is with a basic government voice. It is the voice of a ‘definitive source’ and is:
- clear and direct
- objective and impartial.
A respectful writing style:
- uses inclusive language
- expresses ideas in everyday words
- ‘speaks’ to people – using the pronoun ‘you’, for example
- doesn’t use inflammatory language, such as name-calling or sarcasm
- doesn’t speak down to people, but isn’t too familiar either.
A clear and direct writing style:
- is in plain language
- uses active voice
- is concise
- structures ideas
- makes it easy for people to understand what they need to know or do.
We will not be funding any new projects this year.
In-flight projects will be funded subject to FAS FMDC approval. Other projects have not passed the first capital bid round and are deemed unsuccessful.
Objective and impartial writing:
- relies on facts
- doesn’t include opinion
- is balanced and non-biased.
The difference between fact and opinion can be subtle.
Viewpoint affects perception of whether information is neutral or impartial. Adjectives and adverbs can also affect whether the information comes across as fact or opinion.
There was 15 mm of rain last summer. This made it the driest summer for 120 years.
[The viewpoint is impersonal. The timescale of 120 years gives an objective benchmark for the fact.]
Only 15 mm of rain meant last summer was the driest
we’ve ever had.
[The viewpoint is personal because of ‘we’ (a personal pronoun). The adverb ‘only’ could also imply subjectivity.]
The digital edition has mostly new content on voice and tone.
It uses the terms ‘voice’ and ‘tone’, but does not use the term ‘register’ as described in the sixth edition. Instead, this edition uses voice and tone to describe different aspects of register.
The Content Guide had brief advice on voice and tone in ‘Writing style’.
About this page
General Services Administration (n.d.) ‘Voice and tone’, 18F content guide, 18F Content Guide website, accessed 9 September 2020.
Kelleher T (2009) ‘Conversational voice, communicated commitment, and public relations outcomes in interactive online communication’, Journal of Communication, 59(1):172–188, doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.01410.x.
McKenzie J (2011) The editor’s companion, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.
New Zealand Government (2020) ‘Voice and tone’, Content design guidance, digital,govt.nz, accessed 9 September 2020.
Nordquist, R (2019) What is Tone in Writing?, ThoughCo.com, viewed on 4 January 2020.
NSW Government (2020) ‘Finding a tone of voice’, digital.nsw, accessed 5 May 2020.
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘Tone’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca, accessed 9 September 2020.
University of Maryland University College (2011) A word about style, voice and tone, Online Guide to Writing and Research, University of Maryland University College website, accessed 15 October 2019.
University of Reading (2013) GOV.UK content principles: conventions and research background, GOV.UK website, accessed 4 May 2020.
Wheaton College (2009) Style, diction, tone and voice, Wheaton College, viewed on 15 October 2019.
This page was updated Friday 12 March 2021.