Finding the Right Tone “Tone” is a stylistic metaphor referring to the way a communication “sounds.” We say that the tone of a letter, for example, is upbeat, resigned, cheerful, threatening, forgiving, patronizing, inviting, authoritative, gentle, demanding, courageous, panicky, confident, uncertain, plaintive, reassuring, and so on. Tone is an important stylistic term, so let’s be sure we understand it. It’s not exactly the same thing as “persona,” a literary term meaning (literally) “mask.” So, for example, a scientist might choose to write in a way that clearly reveals to her readers that she is a serious, careful, orthodox research scientist. She may refer to scientific methodologies she is using, laboratories she is collaborating with, scientific literature she’s read, and the scientific world view she embraces. She may use scientific jargon, employ lines of reasoning endorsed by other scientists in her field, organize her prose the way others in her field do. All this would establish her persona, her mask. Or she could choose to put on an entirely different mask: for example, that of the spiritual defender of Gaia, the Living Earth. But she could still be the patronizing scientist or earth mother, the threatening scientist or earth mother, the reassuring scientist or earth mother. That is, she could retain the mask but vary her tone in many different ways. Certainly, the terms tone and persona are related, and one could argue that the gentle earth mother and the angry earth mother are two entirely different masks. But most discussions of style regard the terms as distinct, in the way I’ve explained–and it’s a helpful distinction, so let’s retain it. The best way to understand tone, I think, is to regard it as the servant of persona. You establish a tone in your writing that lets your readers know how you (the scientist, earth mother, CEO, lawyer, prospective employee, consultant) regard them and regard whatever topics you’re discussing. As you can imagine, this unit could become unbearably long if I were to try to cover every possible tone. So let’s focus on just the broad categories of Formal and Informal tone, Positive tone, and on one technique that will improve your writing in multiple tonal categories: the You Attitude. You Attitude Much of the writing in science, technology, business, industry, and government is subject centered rather than audience centered. Unfortunately, professional writers tend to focus on objects, processes, events, amounts–or on themselves and their organizations. Those things dominate the “subject slots” of their sentences and seldom make “you” a direct object. But there’s a better way to write, one that establishes a much more helpful, direct, and considerate tone. It’s simple, really: just remember that you’rewriting to people, not writing about stuff (or about yourself or your organization). When we unpack that
basic rule, we come up with these corollaries:
basic rule, we come up with these corollaries:Much of the writing in science, technology, business, industry, and government is subject centered rather than audience centered. Unfortunately, professional writers tend to focus on objects, processes, events, amounts–or on themselves and their organizations. Those things dominate the “subject slots” of their sentences and seldom make “you” a direct object. 1. Use the pronouns “you” and “your” liberally. Unless you’re writing in an informal mode to Southerners, “you” and “your” serve as both singular and plural. 2. Focus on the reader’s needs and benefits, or on how something affects the reader–not on what you or your product or service or company offers or how you are affected. 3. Don’t write about your own emotions unless you’re very sure that would be appropriate and welcome. (Yes, sometimes a reader wants to know how you feel about something. But not often.) 4. Don’t tell the reader how to feel or what to decide; feeling and decision is the reader’s privilege. This goes in spades for communicating with managers or evaluators of any kind. 5. Give the reader lots of reference points from her perspective. For example: refer to her previous communications, her company’s challenges and goals, her concerns. 6. Name yourself, your work group, your co-workers, your company, your organization to give “flesh” to constructions like “SafeCo will protect you and your family,” “You will open your eyes in the recovery room to find Nurse Fred Feelwell attending to you.” Here’s an example of a “we-attitude” sentence transformed into a “you-attitude” sentence: After years of research, our company has been successful in developing a corrosion-resistant metal finishing alternative for counter tops. • Your company can now take advantage of a new product from ACME that will make the finish on your counter tops more resistant to corrosion. Notice that I employed not only the you attitude, but made the sentence more readable by breaking up a long adjective-noun string. Remember to employ all your professional stylistic skills! View Worksheet.