Taking a Tone
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Tone of voice is easy--you can hear the pitch tighten or slacken, the tempo rise and fall, the consonants get sharp, the vowels open up. So what the heck is "tone" in writing? Most people avoid having deeply personal conversations through email or text because the tone of voice is missing, and the written words alone may be misconstrued. Well, written tone provides the same information as vocal tone, facial expressions, or body language: the mood of the speaker, the formality of the exchange, and the intention behind the words.
There is no such thing as writing without a tone (think of a person having a conversation with you in monotone, standing rigid--this definitely communicates information about mood, formality, and intention). But the tone can be confusing or jumbled, just as it can in non-written speech (think of a person whose sincere apology is interrupted with nervous laughter). Learning to control your tone is an important skill in becoming an effective communicator.
Let's look at three different elements of writing that can shape your tone. There are, of course, many more than that--every writing choice can affect tone--but we have to start somewhere. We'll focus on contractions, punctuation, and diction.
Contractions: Let's do this
You probably already know the rule of thumb that using a lot of contractions makes your writing sound informal. That's more or less true--the contraction effect is essentially conversational. It mimics how people speak, eliding parts of words that are commonly paired together. Social media posts are often tuned to this chatty style. Contractions help build a relaxed tone:
We're excited to announce a new product! It's something we haven't ever done before: lemon-flavored toothpaste! We think you're going to love it.
Reading that same post without the contractions highlights the shift in tone (the shift isn't wholly problematic, but you have to admit that it is markedly different):
We are excited to announce a new product! It is something we have not ever done before: lemon-flavored toothpaste! We think you are going to love it.
But contractions can be appropriate in formal writing. In fact, there are times when eschewing the contraction can add a tone of sternness or emphasis that you didn't really intend, especially in interpersonal communication. Note how the contractions in this business-formal email are helpful in maintaining a natural tone:
Thanks for the offer, but we won't start polling until December. I'll get back to you in a few weeks.
It's subtle, but taking out the contractions leaves this communication stiff at best. At worst, it comes off as curt and annoyed:
Thanks for the offer, but we will not start polling until December. I will get back to you in a few weeks.
Of course, if you want to communicate absolute formality, rigidity, and emotionless practicality (which you might if you are making a proclamation, writing a contract, or delivering a reprimand), eliminating contractions can help you achieve that goal. There's a place for every tone--be ready to build the tone you need for each situation.
Punctuation: Well . . . it's complicated.
As with contractions, there's a piece of common wisdom out there about tone and punctuation: avoid exclamation points in formal writing. I fully support this inclination, even for informal writing. But I can admit that the old exclamation point has its value. Any time you start a non-question sentence with "How" or "What," for instance, an exclamation point is called for. You stand in danger of creating a fairly lackluster tone if you don't use one:
What a day.
What a day!
But tone through punctuation goes a lot further than just exclamations. Writing in the 21st Century must include online and text communication. Here, punctuation has taken on as much tonal meaning as grammatical meaning. Punctuation can create a complex emotional landscape far beyond the literal meaning of the written words. In the following example, I will maintain "correct" spelling and capitalization to emphasize only the impact of punctuation. The sentence:
I can not believe you went to Parr St. without me!
I can. not. believe. you went to Parr St. without me!!!!/!!??!
The second version is downright apoplectic whereas the first is merely indignant. Emotive punctuation is perfectly legible to digital natives, and it can be an effective and vivid form of communication. Don't cry, stodgy old grammarians, it won't help anything. Plus, you can still punctuate your texts formally as long as you like.
Before we leave punctuation, I want to talk about sentence complexity. Sentence structure falls squarely in punctuation's court, though it calls on supporting language skills, too. If you are only confident punctuating short, simple sentences, you may be unintentionally skewing the tone of your writing. Let's say you are writing your memoir, and you want to tell a story about something that happened in your early adulthood. If you depend on relatively simple sentence structures, you may end up with something like this:
I didn't want to disappoint my mother. She had worked so hard to get me this interview. So I took the job. The work wasn't that hard, but it never inspired passion in me. It was clear that they only needed a warm body. I had been working at the job for a month, and I was starting to wonder if I could supply even that.
A paratactic style (strings of independent clauses, sometimes joined by coordinating conjunctions) can be successful if that's the tone you're looking for--something spare, immediate, and raw (think Ernest Hemingway). But for many storytellers, speakers, and writers, a more fulsome tone is appropriate. Complex sentence structure can show complex thought, showing connections between ideas with more precision than simple sentences can. Here is the same passage rewritten with more complexity:
I didn't want to disappoint my mother--she had worked so hard to get me this interview--so I took the job. Though the work wasn't that hard, it never inspired passion in me. It was clear that they only needed a warm body. After a month at the job, I was starting to wonder if I could supply even that.
By turning the second sentence ("She had worked so hard to get me this interview") into a parenthetical aside set off by em-dashes, this information becomes an internal reflection rather than just a statement of fact, and it allows the "so I took the job" conclusion to tie more directly to the first sentence ("I didn't want to disappoint my mother").
The other changes both involve a subordinating conjunction. Subordinating conjunctions (while, after, although, if, because, etc.) go beyond the simple opposition, addition, or sequence markers of coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). The subordinating conjunction "though" allows the writer to start the sentence with conditional opposition. "Hold onto this idea," they tell their reader, "I'm about to push against it.
The last sentence goes one step further and turns the independent clause ("I had been working at the job for a month") into a temporal prepositional phrase ("After a month on the job"), thus de-emphasizing its importance and getting out of the way of the joke about warm bodies. The resulting tone is more thoughtful and controlled, more narrative.
Diction: What's in a Name?
Sometimes called "word choice," diction is a game of implications and associations. This can be very challenging for non-native English speakers because they don't always hear all of the cultural echoes set off by a single word. But even native English speakers get themselves in trouble by playing fast and loose with a thesaurus and landing words that sound eloquent but can warp the tone of a piece of writing.
Vague diction can get you into trouble in terms of tone. Most of the difficulty comes when there is a certain amount of subjectivity at play. Although intended as a simple compliment, this response can come off as insincere and passive aggressive:
Thanks for your interesting presentation today. I learned a lot. We should meet sometime to talk about how we can help you develop your idea.
The famously backhanded "interesting" gets us off to a bad start. Similarly, the vagueness of "a lot" and "sometime" feel perfunctory. If you can't say something precise, don't say anything at all:
Thanks for your presentation today. I did not know that acidification of the waterways was a problem in this area! I would like to talk about collaborating with you on research. Do you have any time in the next week or two to meet?
Here, the recipient has evidence that this is a real offer from a thoughtful and attentive potential partner, not a cursory pity offer of "help."
The power of diction to affect tone can come down to a single word choice. Let's say you are introducing someone at a banquet, and you want to talk about the way that this person has been supporting other young professionals in their field. A simple change in diction changes the tone:
Mx. Taylor cheers on new hires.
Mx. Taylor mentors new hires.
Mx. Taylor nurtures new hires.
Mx. Taylor champions new hires.
Each of these paints a slightly different picture, though each is an action of support, and thus gives the audience a different sense of Mx. Taylor. Be sure to match the tone of the word choice to the tone of the person in question. If Mx. Taylor is not particularly nurturing, this word choice could come off as snarky instead of sincere. When the right word strikes the right note, your audience may not even notice it. That's actually a great thing--that word choice was so natural that no one gave it a second thought. It was, of course, the right thing to say.
There is a lot more to be said about tone. But this is a good place to start. One of the best things you can do to evaluate tone is to read your writing aloud, preferably to a willing listener who can reflect on what they hear honestly. Your voice on the page can be playful, tender, angry, regal, cold, friendly, encouraging, firm--whatever you need it to be. Keep working to develop a full range of tones so that you're ready for every occasion.