Don’t Use that Tone!

How did you react to the title of this blog?  Did you hear your mother?  I did as soon as I read it, and I’m the one that wrote it!  That’s what tone in writing can do.  We literally “hear” in our minds the way something is said.

Here’s what happens in writing.  We use the wrong words or the wrong punctuation, and the tone comes out…guess what?  Wrong.

Consider this!  Consider this.  Consider this?

See the difference punctuation makes?

It makes all the difference!  It makes all the difference.

You might think this is common sense because we tend to learn punctuation early on in school.  An exclamation point (!) is used for emphasis or to show excitement.  A period (.) is used to mark the end of a sentence.  A question mark (?) is used to make an inquiry.  But we mix these up all the time, use them incorrectly or overuse them.

For example, sometimes, when we want to soften our tone, we use a question mark.  Except we aren’t asking a question.  “Consider this?” is not a question.  It’s a statement.  We don’t want to say “Consider this,” because it sounds too didactic.  And we certainly don’t want to say “Consider this!” because it sounds like an order.  So how can we soften “Consider this”?

It’s a matter of changing the wording.  How about making a suggestion?  “When thinking about tone,  you might want to consider this.”  Or, “We can consider tone essential in effective communication.” Both of these sentences are softer now, but the first makes a recommendation, the second an objective statement.  You will also note the second statement is more specific, as it actually defines “tone.”  But both statements use a period at the end.

So how can you avoid miscommunicating your tone?  Here are six suggestions.

  1. Be especially careful about using exclamation points.  Emphasis, demands and over-excitement are rarely acceptable in business writing, especially when used multiple times!!!
  2. Can you turn the statement into a real question, one that requires a question mark?
  3. Use “please” and “thank you” and “I appreciate,” but please be sincere.
  4. Are you SERIOUSLY going to use sarcasm??  Don’t.
  6. Avoid slang.  It makes you sound unprofessional.  Ya know what I mean?

Of course, there are other ways to manipulate tone, some of which just require practice.  Unfortunately, most of us learn by trial and error.  For example, we get a snippy email back when we were just trying to improve things.  Remember, though, your reader can’t see your face when you are writing.  You are relying on words to do a job for you.

Do you have a story about tone?  Any suggestions?  Let me know in the comment section.

(By the way, this article is copyrighted.  I would greatly appreciate it if you would ask me before reproducing.  You may, of course, always link to it.  Thank you!)

Katherine Gotthardt, CEO

Katherine Gotthardt, M.Ed., writing concentration, has been writing, editing and teaching for more than twenty years. For the past ten years, she has focused on content development and content marketing for small to mid-size businesses, writing and disseminating material that increases client visibility while supporting their brand. Besides being published in dozens of journals, Katherine has authored five books: Poems from the Battlefield, Furbily-Furld Takes on the World, Approaching Felonias Park, Weaker Than Water and Bury Me Under a Lilac. Learn more about her creative life at