Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between tone and voice, but they are indeed two different writing elements. However, both elements are often seen together, which is where it gets confusing.
Tone usually refers to the “feeling” of the passage or piece you’re looking at. Often people who are critiquing your work might say something along the lines of “this piece has a good tone,” which simply means the reader got a strong/consistent feeling that was translated from the writing. There could be a funny tone, serious/heavy tone, solemn tone, puzzling tone, the list goes on and on really. It’s the essence of the piece, which makes the reader feel.
Voice, on the other hand, is the “speaker” of the piece. There can be a “strong voice” to the piece, which isn’t translated through dialogue, but rather the narrator and their feelings.
Consider these two passages from The Buddha in the Attic, a book about Japanese Picture Brides that came to America just before the War broke out:
1) “On the boat we crowded into each other’s bunks every night and stayed up for hours discussing the unknown continent ahead of us. The people there were said to eat nothing but meat and their bodies were covered with hair (we were mostly Buddhist, and did not eat meat, and only had hair in the appropriate places). The trees were enormous. The plains were vast. The women were loud and tall—a full head taller, we had heard, than the tallest of our men. The language was ten times as difficult as our own and the customs were unfathomably strange. Books were read from back to front and soap was used in the bath. Noses were blown on dirty cloths that were stuffed back into pockets only to be taken out later and used again and again. The opposite of white was not red, but black. What would become of us, we wondered, in such an alien land?” (Otsuka 6-7).
And, this scene when they have to leave to internment camps:
2) “Misuyo left graciously, and with ill will toward none. Chiyoko, who had always insisted that we call her Charlotte, left insisting we call her Chiyoko. I’ve changed my mind one last time. Iyo left with an alarm clock ringing from somewhere deep inside her suitcase but did not stop to turn it off. Kimiko left her purse behind on the kitchen table but would not remember until it was too late. Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in the corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” (Otsuka 109).
The voice in both passages is unique because it is not from a single narrator, but rather the collective, or Royal, ‘I’ (i.e. “we”). Regardless, the voice in Buddha in the Attic is still considered to be strong because of how the author, Julie Otsuka, managed to represent many voices, and tales/stories, in so little words.
The tone seen in the first passage is that of hope, wonder, possibly excitement, and even fear. The reader gets the sense of these feelings just by the words that are used. In the second passage, the tone is very solemn because the reader is getting glimpses into the characters reactions to them having to leave everything they worked so hard to build away.
As always, make sure Bird by Bird is in your writing book collection. That book covers everything, including tone and voice.
Otsuka, Julie. The Buddha in the Attic. New York: Anchor books, 2011. Print.