Writer’s voice and style

In writing, the writer’s ‘voice’ is who readers hear talking when they read your content (eg you as a scientist, you as a parent, your institution as a whole), and the ‘style’ or ‘tone’ is the feelings and attitudes you convey in your writing (eg formal, objective, casual, light-hearted). 

Your voice and style can communicate much more than just the words on the page. A well-judged voice and style can open readers’ minds to ways of thinking and feeling, and motivate them to continue reading.

This section covers:

Caution! ‘Style’ in this manual usually means editorial style: the rules and decisions made to ensure consistency of expression.

In this section, ‘style’ is used to mean writing style or tone: the language that conveys the emotion and attitude of your writing.


In general, your writing will use either an individual voice or an institutional voice.

The individual voice is simply when you are writing as yourself. Often, but not always, this means using the pronouns I and me. This sounds straightforward, but it is useful to think about what aspects of yourself you are trying to convey, and to alter your style accordingly. For example:

  • you as an expert may want to use a somewhat formal tone to establish your authority

  • you as a parent may want to convey a conversational tone to draw readers in

  • you as a coach may want to be persuasive or encouraging.

The institutional voice is used when professional writers employed by government or commercial bodies become the ‘voice’ of their institution. In such cases, the pronouns are typically we and us. (eg At Some Big Company Inc, we value …).

Another form of institutional voice is when professionals or academics present information with the voice of their discipline (eg when teaching students).

Although audiences should always be a consideration, writers using an institutional voice may have less freedom to adapt the voice to their audiences. The institutional voice is often more about projecting specific information and branding than varying a style to match the audience. It may also need to carry authority.

However, just as for the individual voice, the institutional voice can vary:

  • A scientist providing expert advice to an inquiry is likely to use formal scientific language to establish authority.

  • A teacher writing notes for students is likely to maintain a formal academic tone, but include direct speech to the audience (eg you may find it easier if you …) to connect with their students.

  • A social services manager reporting on the shortage of nurses would use a formal tone to reflect the seriousness of the situation, but may add some emotive language to express the need for urgent action.

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The main thing to think about when you are assessing and refining your style is the level of formality you want to use.

The formal style uses impersonal terms – not talking directly to people but about them, using abstract nouns and indirect verbs. When writers adopt a formal style with less familiar language, it can distance the reader from the content and the message:

Formal style: Voting papers must be submitted by postal voters at least 5 working days before the election day.

The formal style is appropriate in some circumstances, and some professional fields or topic areas tend to use this style. For example, science writing and legal writing often use a style that conveys the objective quality of evidence-based knowledge.

However, in general, successful communicators use language familiar to the audience. A more informal style speaks directly to the reader, using contractions, imperatives and second-person pronouns (you, your). It brings readers into the content and engages them with the topic:

Informal style: If you’re sending in a postal vote, don’t wait until the last minute.

Formal and informal are at opposite ends of the style spectrum, leaving room for a middle style that can be called ‘standard’ or ‘neutral’.

The standard style avoids using long or technical words, and instead chooses mainstream, everyday vocabulary without slang or too many colloquial expressions. It uses contractions (eg can’t, don’t), imperatives (eg Act today!) and interactive second-person pronouns (eg you, your) sparingly:

Standard style: Postal voters should send in their voting forms 1 week before the election.

The standard style engages less directly with the audience than informal style, while avoiding the distancing effect of formal style. It puts the reader on a level with the writer (ie communication between peers) without being too casual. 

The page you are reading now uses a style that is between standard and informal. While it speaks to ‘you’ directly (informal), it makes minimal use of contractions and colloquialisms (standard).

The style of your writing should be influenced by your audience. For example, a scientist may use a technical and impersonal style when writing for colleagues, and a more conversational style when writing for the general public.

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