Monday, October 15, 2012

The Tone Dilemma

One issue I have with email is that you can't always interpret the sender's tone. It's often difficult to judge inflection and emotion, is it not? I received an email this week that came off as aloof and impatient. I'm not acquainted with the sender, so that might not be their intent at all.

I wasn't upset, just thoughtful. How do my missives sound to others? Those who know me know I wouldn't purposely be brusque or set out to offend. 

How does tone relate to writing? I've heard tone defined as how it feels or sounds and is interpreted. Tone can take shape through word choice, sentence structure, and a writer's attitude and style. A writer’s tone can be sarcastic, serious, funny, sad, or a combination, don't you think? I believe that tone plays a role in a writer’s voice.

To illustrate tone, I encourage my teen writing students to consider the following exercise.

Imagine two actors trying out for a part. Each actor’s only line is to say the other actor’s name several times. 





What would they sound like if they were afraid? Surprised? Angry? Confused? Happy? How did they communicate the meaning for each emotion?  

Years ago, I adopted an informal email policy. You might call it "tone insurance".

1) With few exceptions, I don't answer an email in haste. If it's an issue that stirs my emotions, I wait and pray until I'm sure to respond rationally. 

2) I read my response aloud before sending. This slows things down as I consider my reply. I employ this method with my writing too; the ear is a great editor, catching things missed otherwise. The extra bonus - it helps prevent typos. Not always, but often.

3) I get a second opinion. My in house editor, aka my 20-something daughter, often acts as a second set of eyes. If she's not available, I'll ask a friend

Simple points? Yes, but they act as great speed bumps to avoid mishaps.  :)

How do you handle the tone dilemma? How do you think others perceive your writing tone and style?

Happy writing,


Photo credit: Stock Exchange 

Text content copyright Karen Lange. No part shall be used without prior written permission.


  1. I add a lot of smileys to my writing because most of the time I feel smiley. If I'm upset I try to wait before writing and then like you, I read it over and try to make sure it doesn't come across as offensive or brusque. Some people's e-mails make me laugh thoguh because in person they're warm and loving but in their e-mails they come across as very short and direct. lol

  2. I can be very blunt and I'm sure that sometimes comes off wrong in an email.

    Not answering in haste is one of the best things we can do. Or even sending one in haste.

  3. For fiction, tags and gestures, along with explanation are ways I try to get around tone. It's tricky.

    And I agree about email being hard to interpret. I know fights it has caused.

  4. I've had friends jump to conclusions about what I wrote, so I understand the need to proofread. One time I didn't and I paid dearly. I lost a friend. You are so right to take special care in clarify the tone of your emails. In fiction it seems easier. Maybe that's because we can distance ourselves. I'm not sure, but I do know I will continue to take care so as not to ever upset anyone else again.

    Great post, Karen!

  5. I probably err on the side of too cheerful. I like my exclamation points! But I don't use them too aggressively, like this!!!!!!!

  6. Number one is very important. Emotional email writing can be dangerous. I'll sometimes write then send to Draft box to read later when I've got my emotions more under check.

  7. Jessica,
    I use smiley faces too for people I know. Exclamation marks work nicely too. I have friends that come off that way in their emails too. So I guess it's just a conundrum! :)

    I think we can all come off wrong not meaning too. It's just the way email is. I know I'm better if I cool down when agitated. :)

    This is true, with fiction I think we employ different and creative methods. Email, well, as I said, it falls in that conundrum category! lol

    Proofreading is our friend! It's tough when something like that happens - so sorry to hear about it. You're right, care is necessary for sure.

    I think too cheerful is better than the alternative, though, you know? So you don't normally use that many exclamation points???? :)

    I think that's a good idea - putting it in the draft folder. Kind of added insurance till you sort things out. I need to remember that. :)


  8. You've got some very wise steps you use, Karen. Having your daughter look it over sounds like a great idea. You're right. It can be very hard to judge rightly via words on a screen or on a page.

    I think you outline some great ideas.

  9. Smart tips! I can be snarky and I just hope it doesn't come off as rude.


  10. Ah, everything rests on that little thing called "tone". Emails and Facebook comments can be misunderstood so easily, and can complicate one's life.

    Great post.

  11. Sometimes the emoticons (smiley faces and all that) definitely helps. But if it's a more "formal" email, I always make sure to re-read for tone.


  12. This is a good topic, Karen. I've often received e-mails that could be taken the wrong way, but I just choose to assume the best intentions and I respond accordingly. I worry about my own e-mails, though, because I tend to be a straight talker and write without a lot of embellishment. As a result, I often make my intentions clear with a smiley face, just to make sure the reader understands my comments. I don't like to take chances.

  13. Great post!

    I've seen a lot of misunderstandings happen over writing on FB or an email. I always try to be careful on the tone of the letter that I write.

    I believe it's always best to wait to write anything if you are upset.

  14. Rhonda,
    Thanks, sweet friend. Becky and I swap editing - she's often penning something too. It's lovely having a daughter who likes to write. :)

    Thank you! I think snarky is okay if you are careful, you know? In my experience, your emails have been fine!

    Thanks so much. :) Yes, so true. I forgot about Facebook. I've had people offended just when I've shared and commented on a link. It is a tricky thing indeed!

    Oh yes, emoticons do help. What did we do before we could use them? I just don't know. lol

    I do that too - assume that the intent was good. Some are just better at communicating true meaning too, you know? I think we just have to do the best we can and go from there.

    Yes, it is such a tricky thing all around. And now with all the social media, we can get into a lot more hot water. Thanks a bunch!


  15. I am a great user and abuser of emoticons in emails and the like--they set the tone for me. ;) Too bad I can't do that in fiction, eh?

  16. I read and re-read and re-read and re-read emails before I send them out. And then I add extra smiley faces just for good measure. :)

  17. Imagine having to only communicate with letters as in past centuries. A misread thee or thou probably started a war or two. Thank God for smiley faces!

  18. Charlie,
    I know, smiley faces are my thing to set a tone with those I know. Yes, if only we could use it in fiction! But would that fall under telling and not showing? Oh well! :)

    You too, huh? Sometimes I think I am just plain silly by doing that, but I always want to put my best foot forward, you know? And how does it look if we are sloppy with our emails, we're writers after all! lol

    I know it! I can just imagine. We have so many good tools at our fingertips, and I'm thinking the smiley face is one of my favorites!

    Happy writing,

  19. With the tone dilemma in emails and forums etc I use the casual emoticons--smiley faces etc. They're informal, but they work. :)
    In writing, however, I'll add character actions and reactions to demonstrate tone.

  20. I know I factor in a person's personality when I read emails. But there are lots of individuals we don't know, and this makes it hard. I remember this was especially difficult when I was first putting my work out there for feedback. But, that experience allowed me to try and read deeper and see past any surface bluntness in the tone. People might be tired, short on time, who knows, right?

    Hope all is well with you, Karen!


  21. Lynda,
    You're right, they do work! I'm grateful we have them. Not being able to use them for fiction stretches us, does it not? :)

    All is well, thank you! Hope all is well with you too. :) I think you make a good point. You never know what kind of day a person is having which could affect how they respond. Good advice to be the mature one and look beyond, as you said, the surface.

    Happy writing,

  22. Hi Karen .. I try and adjust to the person at the other end, or to the tone of the subject matter - eg is it a professional matter ...

    I try and read things through before I hit the send button .. not always .. but I try and empathise with the person the other end.

    Sometimes we need to adjust to the culture of the person - American v English etc .. it could be a minefield - and I do see people comment or write in a way that I personally would caution myself ..

    Different backgrounds, different continents, different norths and souths .. I try and keep lighthearted ...

    However some friends don't like emails ... I'm now back being happy to be in contact with friends whichever way which! I'll get on to FB and Twitter soon too ..

    Cheers for now - Hilary

  23. Karen, great advice! It's not what you say, but how you say it! Hard to do that with email, but your points help a lot!

    BTW, I saw that you live about 90 mins. from Cincinnati. Let me know if you ever attend the Lori Foster Reader and Author Get Together!

  24. Oh, emails - they open a Pandora's box sometimes! You're right: tone can be so difficult to interpret. I always try to add a bit of levity to clarify!

  25. I can understand the tone problem. I have torn up letters that I meant to send because after having read them, the tone just sounded harsh or not what I wanted. I was a nuisance to do it, but worth it as I value those receivers very much. Reading aloud is also a good idea. I think your point is a good one. Tone definitely has power.

  26. Hilary,
    I think you are right - we need to make adjustments. You bring up another good point; what might offend someone in one country might not in another. So this adds another dimension! :) Ah well, we just do the best we can, right? :)And use lots of smiley faces. lol

    Thank you! Yes, how you say it, now there's the tricky part. :) I've not attended that event. Will have to check it out!

    So true, that's a good way to put it! I agree, levity is a wonderful thing! :)

    I've done that too - torn letters up. This is why if you look in the box where I keep my note cards there are extra envelopes! :)

    Happy writing,

  27. I try to choose my words carefully. This past Saturday I sent an email to a lady with whom I was rather disappointed. I edited one word, making it sound better. I then bcc'd it to another person who knew of my angst. When I saw the other person, he thought I had chosen that one word wisely.

  28. My mother used to tell me: "Never put anyting in writing you'd not be proud to have me read later."

    It caused me to think twice & write once. Sometimes I found myself sleeping on something before remitting it.

    This is a much needed post, reminder & wisdom, Karen. Thank you.

  29. Taking time to think about a response is crucial.

  30. Cecelia,
    Glad it worked out well! I try to do this too; it's hard sometimes but worth the effort, as you said. :)

    I love that! What a wonderfully smart Mom you had! :) I need to remember that one. So glad you shared it with us.

    You are so right. It avoids so many misunderstandings!

    Happy writing,

  31. You've hit on one of my complaints with emails and texting. It is often so difficult to ascertain the tone of something, especially if "shot off" in haste. I've wondered if some of the interpersonal drama today's kids experience is rooted in this very thing. "Back in my day" (did I really just say that?) we did not always have the ability to respond immediately to things. By the time we had the opportunity to comment a lot of our steam was gone.

  32. Oh! Emails and texting tones? How can we know if someone is sending a frustrated or a happy one? Or we are coming across as such? My dilemna also!

    While editing I tend to read aloud to figure out tones.


  33. I'm like Jessica-- I try to add smiley faces too all the time! I hate that someone would take my email wrong but I know it happens all the time.:(

  34. Lisa,
    I hear you. I feel the same way. And yes, you DID say that. Guess what, I heard myself saying it the other day! Oh my. We are certainly not that old. lol :)

    Oh yes, this is such a dilemma, in my opinion! Well, we do the best we can, right? :)

    Me too. Since writing this post, I realized that I use them a whole lot more than I thought! :) lol


  35. Great post! I love your list too. I read my stories aloud, but will start reading emails aloud too. Tones are great to listen to in our writing too. You just gave me another way to make my story better. Love you!!!!!!!!!

  36. Hi Karen,

    First time on your very intriguing blog! Yes, I mean that, so I used an exclamation mark to emphasize my emotion. I tend to be rather conservative in my usage of emoticons, etc., simply old school, I guess. What I initially wanted to say was that the exercise you gave to your teen students, we also had the pleasure of doing in drama class at the University of Toronto, where I studied this art form in my first year. Also, reading your finished work very closely and out loud, whether fiction or non, proves to be immensely helpful in understanding tone. Checking spelling, grammar and vocabulary goes without saying. Overall, because the reader cannot actually hear you, you have to make sure that your final text comes as close to your intention as possible.

    I look forward to taking a closer look around your blog as soon as time allows. I've been blogging since May of this year and have enjoyed meeting new people who continue to inspire me in my writing.


  37. Robyn,
    Thanks so much! :) Reading aloud does help me with my emails too - don't do it all the time, but often. Love you too!!

    It's great to meet you! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting and following. :) I appreciate your input. Looking forward to having you along! Will hop over to your blog asap.

    Happy writing,


Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Have a blessed day!