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How to use tone in your writing

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor



A writer's tone is very important, as it conveys a particular message from you as the writer and likewise affects the reader in a particular way. Consequently, it can also affect how the reader receives the message you are communicating.

What Is Tone?

Tone in writing can be defined as attitude or emotion toward the subject and the reader.

Using the Appropriate Tone

Using the appropriate tone in business writing is an important aspect of communicating the desired message and of achieving the desired results. When determining the appropriate tone to use, ask yourself why you are writing the document (the purpose of the document), who the audience is, and what you want readers to learn—and more importantly, to do—with the information in the document. When you know the answers to these questions, you will be able to identify and use the appropriate tone. In turn, the appropriate tone will help you to engage your reader and propel him or her to action. Below are tips that will help you achieve the proper tone in your business correspondence.

10 Tips for Using the Appropriate Tone in Business Writing

  1. The tone for most business writing—including business letters, memos, reports, instructional documentation, and so forth—should be fairly formal, even though each company's culture is obviously somewhat distinct. Even when you know the readers quite well, and almost certainly when you do not, the tone should be quite formal in most written business communication.

    However, there are of course exceptions. One exception to this guideline, for instance, would be e-mail messages you send to co-workers or others with whom you work closely when the message is sent in informal situations (for example, when inviting co-workers to lunch or reminding them of an upcoming meeting). Job position also plays a part in this; you might use a slightly different tone with your colleagues then you do with your boss, for example. If in doubt, let the communication style of others with whom you work be your guide.

  2. Though most business correspondence is fairly formal, don't make the mistake of being too formal. There's no reason to say "In the event that" when "If" will do. You want your writing to sound natural, not stuffy or stilted. Some writers suggest, for example, that it is wrong to use the pronoun "you" or to include contractions in business writing. However, doing so is appropriate in all but the most formal correspondence. In most writing, you should feel free to use such constructs, as they give a conversational, natural feel to your writing.
  3. No matter the subject or the circumstances, you should be positive in your writing, even if the information is negative. Word choice is very important in accomplishing this.

    Not: 

    Because of recent declines in profits, no one will be getting a Christmas bonus this year.

    But:

    Unfortunately, due to the decrease in sales this year, we will not be awarding Christmas bonuses this year. However, we want to thank you, as always, for your outstanding performance as a top-notch employee, and we cordially invite you to our annual holiday party.

  4. Your tone should be courteous and professional at all times, and it should convey strength and confidence. When you use a confident and courteous tone, readers are more likely to agree and accept the message you are conveying. However, you must not be curt, overconfident, or arrogant, as this will likely alienate your reader. If you are too tentative, readers might not take you seriously, but if you are too demanding, they might resent your request and be less inclined to comply. Thus, it is important to find the proper balance.

    Not: 

    This letter is to inform you that you will attend the upcoming mandatory meeting

    But:

    We appreciate your attendance at the upcoming mandatory meeting.

    Not: 

    You did not assemble the parts correctly, and so the product is malfunctioning.

    But:

    The product may not work correctly if any errors occur during assembly.

  5. Be honest and sincere. Most readers can tell when someone is not being honest with them. You will be able to build greater trust with readers—and consequently, be able to accomplish more—if they know that they can believe what you say.
  6. Always use appropriate language in business correspondence. Using appropriate language in the workplace is part of being a professional. In your business writing, you should refrain from using slang, bad grammar, or sloppy sentence constructions, and you should use correct punctuation and capitalization. You must also avoid discriminatory or derogatory language.
  7. Avoid flowery or verbose language. Don't be wordy in a misguided attempt to be diplomatic or to sound more eloquent or educated. Rather, use clear, concise, simple language without talking down to your readers. For more information on these topics, see the articles "Clarity" and "Conciseness".
  8. In most cases, it is best to use active rather than passive constructions in your writing. Because the active voice is more direct, it is generally shorter and clearer. Moreover, it portrays confidence and a willingness to take responsibility for one's actions.
  9. Take the time to write well. Understand that a report to the members of your board is not the same as an e-mail you dash off to your old high school friend; the former requires a great deal more thought and care. When necessary, do research so that you are knowledgeable on the subject about which you are writing and can adequately express your ideas. This too will help you to convey the appropriate tone by allowing you to write with clarity and confidence.
  10. Realize that, in some cases, you may need to give yourself some time before you write so that you can do so objectively; don't write correspondence when you're overly emotional. Instead, wait until the next day, if necessary.

Adapting Tone for Specific Types of Business Writing

In addition to the general guidelines outlined above, it is important to point out that we use a slightly different tone depending on the type of business correspondence we are writing. Below are some examples of the appropriate tone to use in particular kinds of business writing.

  • Awarding a promotion—appreciative, enthusiastic
  • Applying for a job position—enthusiastic, confident
  • Denying a request—regretful, courteous
  • Rejecting a job applicant—thankful, regretful
  • Declining a job offer—appreciative, regretful
  • Apologizing to a customer for a mistake—humble, appreciative to the person for being a client, confident that the mistake will be remedied
  • Apologizing to a customer; unable to correct the mistake—humble, appreciative, regretful that the mistake can not be remedied
  • Reprimanding an employee—firm but courteous (address the issue; don't attack the individual)

Conclusion

The guidelines above can help you to use the appropriate tone in business writing. As you craft your business correspondence, it is important to realize, also, that tone is somewhat subjective: what sounds efficient to one reader may sound brusque or even curt to another, and what sounds courteous to one might sound flowery to another. For this reason, it is always a good idea to have someone else read over your document for you to make sure that you are indeed conveying the appropriate tone.


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