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Tone and Audience

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

I am going to discuss tone and audience together because they interrelate. The tone of your book title must fit your audience. If it doesn't, the wrong people can buy and be disappointed, and the right people can turn away from your book and look elsewhere.

To understand how this works, let's look at three books about living in Alaska: first, Alaska Homesteader's Handbook: Independent Living on the Last Frontier; second, Arctic Homestead: The True Story of One Family's Survival and Courage in the Alaskan Wilds; and third, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska. Just from the word choices and how these titles are put together, we can understand how each of these titles sends signals to a different audience. Even though all three are about living in Alaska, they are not aimed at the same set of readers.

In the first title, Alaska Homesteader's Handbook: Independent Living on the Last Frontier, we have three words, "homesteader," "independent," and "frontier," that let us know the intended audience is people who value pioneer living, being self-sufficient in a place known for its rugged wildness. In addition, the word "handbook" lets us know the focus of the book is practical. It is not going to be philosophical or poetic. It is not going to have much to offer an armchair traveler, a tourist, or someone interested in adventure stories.

In the second title, Arctic Homestead: The True Story of One Family's Survival and Courage in the Alaskan Wilds, pay attention to the words "arctic," "survival," "courage," and "wilds" – these imply a struggle to make it in a very cold, remote and forbidding environment. In addition, "true story" and "one family" tell us this is not a practical guide to survival in Alaska. Rather, it is a dramatically told story about one family living on the last frontier. From the words chosen, we know this is not a practical book. Someone who enjoys reading adventure stories about places they will never visit would be drawn to this book from its title.

The third title, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, is a bit vaguer than the other two, and this one I have read. It's one woman's story of settling in Alaska, and she signals in the style of her main title, which consists of three words strung together without connecting words, that this book is going to be more literary in style, more contemplative than practical. We see that also in the fact that those three words "tide," "feather," and "snow" are presented as general singular nouns, instead of "tides" and "feathers," which also gives a literary flavor. So from the title, this book appears to be for armchair travelers, curious people who are not necessarily interested in homesteading themselves or in practical information.

A good way to think of tone is as the personality, attitudes, beliefs, and values given off by a set of words. Is the tone humorous or serious? Lowbrow or highbrow? Romantic or gritty? Academic or practical? Does it sound like you approve or disapprove of your subject matter?

Let's take a controversial topic like global warming and climate change, and take a look at the tone that comes across in four titles. First, Global Warming and Other Bollocks: The Truth About All Those Science Scare Stories.

Well, if you are not British, you may have to look up the word "bollocks" in the dictionary. That in itself tells you the audience is not meant to be ordinary Americans. The dictionary says the word is vulgar slang used to express contempt, annoyance, or defiance. The phrase "the truth about" comes out only when someone is highly polemical or argumentative. "Science scare stories" implies scorn for scientists. What comes through in the word choices in this title, therefore, is a scathing opposition to alarm over global warming from Britishers who have an axe to grind. I am not saying this is either good or bad, and the content right or wrong, I'm just talking about the tone signals in a title.

Next, let's look at How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate: Let Science Do the Talking the Next Time Someone Tries to Tell You... The phrase "our changing climate" makes it clear that these authors consider it the fact that the climate is changing. Notice that every single word in this title is a simple, ordinary one, which indicates the book is probably easy to understand. The "you" pronoun used makes the title a conversational message from authors to readers, and the phrase "let science do the talking" gets across the supportive idea, "Don't be intimidated. This book will give you the confidence to argue with people who need to be convinced of what you already believe." We know from the title that the scientific content is going to be down to earth, not difficult to understand.

Here's another book on the same topic: The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings. We have two rather long words in the main title, "fanaticism" and "apocalypse." "Fanaticism" implies that people are going overboard in their belief in something, and "Apocalypse" refers to the fiery end of the world. Hardly anyone would use either word in reference to their own cause. "Save the earth" is a phrase that environmentalists use, but it's juxtaposed with another three-word phrase that doesn't seem to fit with it unless you assume that saving the earth causes punishment of people. All in all, the title tells us that readers are in for a bombastic critique against "save the planet" thinking and action.

And last, we have The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change. Here there is no irony, sarcasm, or criticism, but rather a textbook tone, especially in the subtitle. Not only does this title convey that climate change is a fact, according to these authors, but also the word "crisis" in the main title signals that the phenomenon is an urgent problem that readers will undoubtedly be concerned about. The tone is not purely scientific or academic, but the title promises that the reader will be informed with factual information that students will be able to understand.

My point is that subtle messages come across clearly with the words you choose for your title, and you want to make sure those implicit messages are the ones you actually intend and are right for your intended audience. Again and again, I have seen new authors select words for their book that their audience doesn't really understand, such as "nemesis." Or they try to avoid what they think are overly obvious words, such as "fame," and choose a word like "notoriety" instead – yet "notoriety" actually means being known for something bad and therefore not a condition the average fame-seeking person wants.

We'll continue this discussion of tone and audience in the next lesson.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin