Tone and Emotion in Writing

When you use the correct tone, your writing can become so much more than words on a page. Tone is what allows writers to build a new world with deeply complex characters. Author and sensitivity reader Dennis Norris II stated that if he remembers the language of something he read, he also remembers the tone. If a work is memorable, that means the tone played a role in it. 

Regardless of what you’re writing–an email, a tweet, or a book–tone and emotion help to define the message. To help you master tone, we’ve compiled this guide to writing with tone and emotion.

What Is Tone in Writing?

The attitude your writing exudes is tone. Just like your tone of voice in a conversation, tone in writing provides context beyond words. It can both conceal and reveal intentions.

Imagine your boss sent you a Slack message reading, “Do you have a moment to talk?” You might wonder, “Uh oh, what did I do wrong?” But if your boss said, “Got a second to chat real quick?” instead, then you’d probably feel more at ease. The contrast here is thanks to tone.

The emotional response you have to a message may not match up with the sender’s intentions, but it still exists, and people tend to seek it out while reading. 

What Informs Tone in Writing?

Like language in general, tone works because people agree on the general meanings behind words. Oftentimes, cultural norms dictate the way words are perceived. Therefore, it takes knowledge of expectations and norms, plus conversational context, to successfully convey emotions. In many situations, the stakes are elevated according to the message’s importance, and so more attention is needed. Norris II is familiar with this phenomenon; he states that when he does a sensitivity read, he examines every aspect of the work, from the language and plot to the psychology of the characters and political context. Humanity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so Norris II must “mine the work incredibly closely” to help authors complete pieces that don’t run the risk of offending anyone.

Even if you’re not writing about complex topics like race and class, tone-based misinterpretation can still take place. Say you’re texting someone you just met and are interested in. The difference between “Definitely!” and “K” is very clear. This has to do with the connotations placed on various words within the contact of texting.

Dr. Tchiki Davis, who founded the Berkeley Well Being Institute, explains that we’ve become quite accustomed to exclamation points and emojis. Now, when they’re missing, we perceive texts as being angry or cold. This gap between the desired emotional reaction and the perception of the message is common. Many readers read texts slightly more negatively than they were intended to be by the writer. 

Types of Tone in Writing

Tone can be extremely diverse, conveying positive, negative, neutral, and everything in between. Imagine you’ve just been invited to a party. How would you respond? Here are a few examples of the tone you can give off depending on your specific response.

Informal: Cool, see ya there.

Appreciative: Thanks so much for inviting me!

Formal: I’m writing to inform you that I’ll be in attendance.

Joyful: OMG! I can’t wait!!

Confused: I don’t know, I might be busy that day.

Regretful: I wish I could go, it’s a shame that I have a work dinner the same night.

Neutral: All right.

Skeptical: Are you sure about having a party that night?

How Does Tone Impact a Reader’s Emotional Response?

The relationship between tone and emotions begins in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions. It’s thought that the amygdala interacts with the orbitofrontal cortex, where decisions are made, and the visual cortex. This interaction produces a relationship between the written word and emotions. You see the words, interpret their meaning, add emotional context, and there you have it: words with emotional meaning.

However, the amygdala isn’t always this involved when it comes to language comprehension. This part of the brain varies from person to person, and not every word has the same emotional weight associated with it. In this way, there’s still some unknown elements.

Still, it’s possible to take on a scientific approach for mastering tone. Plutchik’s wheel of emotions says that feelings can usually be calculated using a combination of basic emotions. Let’s look at love, for instance. It’s made up of trust and joy. To create envy, anger and sadness combine. Then, when you combine this with the NRC Word-Emotion Association Lexicon, you can reverse-engineer feelings by sorting words into corresponding emotional reactions.

How to Create Tone in Your Writing

Have you figured out your desired tone? Once you’ve accomplished that, there are a few things to remember as you write.

Diction

Strive for positivity. If you feel that a specific word or even emoji doesn’t feel quite right, consider removing it or rephrasing it. You can also check a thesaurus for a word that is more fitting.

Pronouns

It’s important to note the main subject of a sentence. When using the word “you,” you talk straight to the reader. Meanwhile, the use of “I” or a lack of personal pronouns isn’t as likely to directly impact the reader. In some situations, using “you” works very effectively, but be sure to evaluate the situation. Always use a respectful tone when addressing the reader. 

Punctuation

In a casual setting, a lack of punctuation can be appropriate. However, it’s hard to pull off a lack of punctuation in professional settings. Even though punctuation isn’t as critical to tone as some other elements, it still has a notable impact. 

Consistency

If even one sentence comes off tone-deaf, it can, unfortunately, invalidate the rest of your work for some readers. If you’re writing about something you feel very strongly about, double-check your work for consistency. 

Honesty

You should always tell the truth in your writing, both in what you say and how you say it. When you’re inauthentic, the tone of your writing reflects that. 

Empathy

Once you’ve finished a piece, read it out loud. Imagine how a reader would respond to it, or better yet, ask a friend or coworker for some feedback. Of course, there are some external factors, such as a reader’s personal circumstances, that you can’t control. However, you can control your own thoughtfulness in regard to the subject at hand.

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