Tone: How Words Can Trigger Emotions

When the right tone is employed, writing can transcend the words on the page. It’s what allows writers to create complex characters, to build a world that feels real.

“Tone, to me, is like the Harry Potter house-elf of craft,” says author and sensitivity reader Dennis Norris II. “If I remember the language of something I’ve read, I am remembering the tone. It’s just there, and you’re benefiting from it. If the work was memorable, the tone played a role in it.”

Whether you’re writing a book, a tweet, or an email, emotion and tone help define the message. To help you master it, we’ve put together this guide to tone, emotion, and writing:

What is tone in writing?

Tone is the attitude your writing employs. Just like tone of voice, tone in writing gives much more context beyond the words used. It can reveal intention or conceal it. As memoirist and writing coach Adair Lara says, “Tone is what the dog hears.”

If, for example, your boss sent you a Slack message that said, “Do you have a minute to talk?” you might think, “Oh no, what’s wrong?” If she rephrased it as, “Got time to chat real quick?” you might be less alarmed. There isn’t a negative force lurking in the background. That contrast is because of tone.

And while the emotional response you take away from a message may not necessarily be the intention of the sender, it still exists, and people will seek it out when reading. “If the reader doesn’t respond the way you want them to,” says Lara, “you don’t have a reader.”

What informs tone in writing?

Tone, like language itself, works because people agree on the meaning behind words. Cultural norms often dictate how those are perceived. And it takes knowledge of those norms and expectations, as well as the context of the conversation, to be able to convey the intended emotions. See More . . . 




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