Hey, watch your tone

When people discuss something passionately, you’ll often to run into a “tone argument,” or “tone policing.” That’s when someone rejects an argument by objecting to the writer’s (or speaker’s) tone. The tone argument is as a logical fallacy, often used as a way of unfairly shutting people down rather than engaging with them. (“I can’t take you seriously because you are too angry/flippant/bland.”)

While you should never bow down to the tone police, you’d be a fool to ignore how much tone can influence the way your message is received. If all you care about is making your point and being right, well, good for you and thanks for visiting. If you want to be right and persuasive, read on.

A good starting point is to match your tone with your subject. A deadly serious subject deserves a serious tone. If revolutionaries depose a dictator and tie him up in front of a firing squad, it would be jarring to say the revolution “spoiled his fun.” A breezy, personal approach can work for a light subject: “Remember what it was like waking up and dreading another day of school, then suddenly realizing it was Saturday?” You’ll lose most of your audience with, “Remember what it was like waking up in a strange room after a three-day coke binge and not knowing where your clothes were?”

Sometimes it’s tempting to use tone for a bit of winking and nudging. An insinuating adjective here, a euphemism there. You are better off playing it straight. “If you have solid information logically marshaled, the readers will draw their own inferences, without the aid of zingers,” says writing guru Rene J. Capon. “The less you comment or characterize, the better. An obvious attempt to push readers toward a foreshadowed conclusion is self-defeating; many resist such ham-handed pressure tactics.”

Basically it’s a matter of word choice. You might have a bunch of words that mean essentially the same thing: house, home, residence, domicile. But, as Capon notes, it just doesn’t sound right to say, “The old couple lived in a cozy residence.” No matter how grammatically correct it might be, “residence” doesn’t sound cozy. If a man sprains his ankle while stepping off a curb, that’s a mishap, Capon says. “Mishap” doesn’t work for a car wreck with multiple deaths. If you are angry and want everyone to know it, pick words that are short and punchy rather than multisyllabic and magniloquent.

Tone is more than just a tool. It’s a matched set of tools. The set includes folksy, clinical, stuffy, angry, sweet, authoritarian, and a host of other voices. When you find the one that best fits your subject and your emotion, your writing will work a lot harder for you.



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