An important but often overlooked quality in writing is tone. When we think of tone, we often think of the emotional state of the speaker’s voice. Children are often scolded for taking a disrespectful “tone” with their parents, for example. As with speech, all forms of writing inherently takes on some sort of emotional state, even if it is a neutral one.

It is my theory that tone can be explained through word choice, punctuation, and subject matter. A good writer uses all three consistently. For example, a solemn invitation to a funeral would probably use minimal punctuation and would certainly avoid use of the exclamation mark. A private email to a close friend should avoid overly formal words like “thou and whom.”

The first step in understanding tone in writing is to become aware of it. If you read an upsetting letter or edifying prose, ask yourself: What were the word choices, punctuation, and subject matter that made the experience emotional and effective? You can then begin to better control how you shape tone in your writing. Drafting an email to your teacher requires a different tone than a love letter or research-based article. You will be more effective in all your writing endeavors when you take the time to think about tone.

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