Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

The Nuances of Voice and Tone


We know that voice and tone are very important in a written text. Every word we choose in every sentence we write will have a nuanced impact on our reader.

No matter the genre or the subject matter, our readers will hear our story and judge our sincerity and intent.

So what does this mean for the writer? It means that we must take care of voice and tone — and say what we really intend to say. Of course this care-full commitment to clarity means a lot of drafting, editing, and redrafting.

Here is a touching expression of how hard one writer worked to find the right voice and tone when composing condolence letters. He writes:

“Each condolence letter ended up taking about three hours to write . . . The cliché would be that the memories poured out, but they didn’t. They required being tweezed out, one at a time. Cliché would also state that the letters required no editing, but of course they did, and I found myself hunched over my computer in familiar fashion, shifting sentences around and removing stray words like I was on deadline, and my editor was breathing down my neck. The process of writing is always the same, whatever the subject, whomever the reader.”

Read the entire New York Times text: The Lost Art of the Condolence Letter By Saul Austerlitz.


Learning to Tell the Story Behind Scientific Research

Adam Jorge is a first-year graduate student at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. With undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political science, he has chosen to follow his heart and pursue work in environmental science.

So now he is writing science papers. A lot of them. And the way his new discipline shares ideas through writing is different from what he is used to.

“And to think I thought it would be easy…

I somewhat naively expected a balance between the disciplines, but upon arrival I was greeted with some heavy-handed readings, and some frighteningly scientific assignments.

The facts, figures, stats, definitions, and terminology leave me completely dazed. The content of written work is so different, and I lose my voice somewhere in the data.

Choosing an approach to my writing proved challenging, and I wasn’t sure why. This writing class revealed something very important about my writing style: My tone is my springboard—all of my work begins with my tone selection.

Tone and information go hand in hand; while data/information is almost self-developing, tone comes with the development of voice—my voice just so happened to be inhibited by a lack of experience interpreting the science.

But my favorite part of this class has been learning to tell the story behind scientific research.

Telling the story in philosophy, political science and public policy comes naturally; ideas within social sciences tend to be horizontal and sequential, as opposed to the vertical integration I see in the sciences.

Prior to this class, I assumed that scientific literature simply reports observations. Uncovering the words hidden in data, the importance of research, and the significance of implications now helps me weave the story behind the science.

Finding ways to layer and stack the depths of information on top of one another provides me with a new method for story building:

Telling a scientific story is less like a map, which directs a reader from one destination to another; it is instead more like building a skyscraper, where the reader navigates each floor, which both stands on its own and is dependent upon the floor beneath.”

Thank you Adam for these wonderful insights!

The Right Word

• “It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.” Isabel Allende

• “Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.” Susan Orlean

• “Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.” Francine Prose

From things I read on Brain Pickings.

Retelling in a Computer Science Talk

This interesting insight about the organization of content in a science talk comes from Adam Waksman, a PhD student in Computer Science at Columbia University:

“One challenge that is always present in computer science talks is the need to constantly remind the audience what is happening. Computer scientists expect to be told what they are going to hear before they hear it.

While I do not necessarily think that results need to be a mystery, I also think the constant re-telling gets tedious. For example, the audience might be told something on an initial overview slide, then again during motivation, then reminded of it on an outline slide and then told it in detail later in the talk. For me, that is too much.

One example of where that is an issue for me in my Berlin talk [presented at CCS 2013 – http://www.sigsac.org/ccs/CCS2013 in November] is the issue of multiple scores. At some point in the talk, the audience needs to understand that there are two different scores being computed and why they are both relevant. Saying it too early gets redundant and derails the story. Saying it too late makes it seem like it came out of the blue and also somewhat derails the story. I have moved the relevant slide a couple of times in recent revisions, but I am not sure I am happy at the moment with the placement.

In my experience, these are often tricky cases — where there is a detail to the story that is important because of scientific reasons but not inherently obvious. One cannot withhold these details in a long talk, but when introduced at the wrong time they make the story seem less simple and perfect, which is often what a computer science audience wants to hear. This is something I expect to improve upon as I do more practice talks.”

Thank you Adam!


E.B. White’s Approach to Style

“. . . We approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries . . .”

“. . . There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

E. B. White in The Elements of Style.


E. B. White and the Job of a Writer


What are your views about the writer’s commitment to politics, international affairs? You have written so much (The Wild Flag, etc.) about federal and international issues.


“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”


In a country such as ours, which has become increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology, what role do you see for the writer?


“The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.’

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

From “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay.” 1969. 

Introducing Captions

A caption is the voice of an image. It speaks for a photo; a diagram; a chart; a bar graph; a drawing; an outline; a list.

It is the job of the writer to give the image voice so that the reader understands its significance and value.

After you have given the caption a title, what other details should be included? You might consider the WALTER approach to writing a clear and helpful caption. Remember — the caption should serve to advance your ideas and bring your reader to a better understanding of your point of view.

Jelena Marašević, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University, attended my Academic Writing class for PhD students this September-October. Here is what Jelena says about captions — and here are her before and after captions for the same image. Thank you Jelena!

“Before taking the class, I was not sure what to write in a figure caption. I thought that it is better to only have a title for a figure, and explain in the text what the figure presents. Here is an example of the same figure I used in a project report in the Spring semester, and that I am using in a paper I am currently writing (the relation before-after should be clear).”





Bren Writers

The lagoon, UCSB

The lagoon, UCSB

Announcing a new blog!

BREN WRITERS — Environmentally-inspired snippets 

Inaugurated by the community of writers in the 2013 Writing Skills for Environmental Professionals – Advanced Class at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, UCSB.

Writing Letters

The name of my blog is “The art and craft of writing and speaking.”

I’ve focused my discussions mostly on the academic world. For writing, that includes looking at many of the things we need to think about when we write a formal academic text.

But what about other wonderful kinds of writing? Like the art of letter writing? I experience a different kind of joy when I pick up a pen and write a letter than I do when I use a keyboard to write an email or ecard.

Please enjoy this lovely piece on writing — and receiving — letters.


 “Yesterday morning, I sat at my desk, took out pen and paper, an envelope and a roll of stamps and began to write. No, I wasn’t mailing a check or returning an online purchase — or recreating a scene from a Jane Austen novel. I was writing a letter.

This activity has become a weekly ritual for me, as I keep regular correspondence with several faraway loved ones. It started last year, with a postcard that my mother sent me — I taped it up next to my desk as a reminder to write back. Over time, my address book has grown to include friends of many different ages and locations: a girl from my high school now attending college in Ohio, cousins and aunts in Montana, a woman who I know well who lives in my home neighborhood. My wall is now covered with a collage of bright postcard photos and pages full of curling dark script . . .

The vast majority of students probably haven’t written and mailed a letter since the days of post-birthday-party thank-you notes. It’s true that our culture has fully shifted away from this by now — and of course, this is partially for good reason. It’s impossible to deny that it’s actually much faster and more effective to keep in touch with people via text, email or Facebook. But there’s still something to be said for keeping actual physical correspondence, intentionally choosing to forego the ease of the computer in order to have a more meaningful exchange of ideas.

Writing a letter isn’t something that you can just dash off in a few minutes, replete with misspellings and abbreviations — you have to actually grab a piece of paper, sit down at a desk and think a bit first. The simple act of choosing to write a letter already shows an investment in your interaction with the person to whom you’re sending it, that you have something worthwhile to say and have taken the time to do so in a full and complete manner.

And there’s something to the materiality of a letter, the thrill of unfolding the piece of paper and knowing that another set of hands far away has held it too. Unlike emails, letters aren’t in danger of disappearing into cyberspace with one false click. My mother still has a box full of the letters she sent to her parents in college, which she let me look through over the summer. Leafing through the pages, I could see the development of the handwriting, as well as of the woman who wrote with it. Somehow a folder of emails just doesn’t have that same effect . . .

[There’s] just something about opening my P.O. box each week to find a stack of thick, handwritten envelopes, which no high-pitched ping or Facebook notification tone will ever be able to match. And it would be irresponsible of our generation to sacrifice this simple pleasure entirely, for the sake of mere convenience.”

From A Weekly Ritual, by Emma Fallone. In The Yale Daily News, Nov. 8, 2013. http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/11/08/fallone-a-weekly-ritual/

The Two Parts of the Writing Process

Producing a written text has two parts. One part is the generation of content; the other part is the editing of content.

Yesterday, in the first class meeting of my writing class at UCSB’s Bren School, I asked “How many of you spend an hour writing a single paragraph?” Many of the students raised their hands.

Why does it take these folks so long to produce a single paragraph of text? Because they are blending the two parts of the writing process.

Instead of first producing content in an uninterrupted flow and then editing what they have written, they are making changes to story, words, sentences, and organization as they compose.

If you are someone who writes and edits simultaneously, try something different.

Bren students engrossed in the composing process.

Bren students engrossed in the composing process.

Try to write your ideas without interrupting the flow — even if only for a few minutes at a time.

Then go back and play with your content — refine the meaning, logic, precision, voice, and readability.

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