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Be Mindful of the Tone of Your Writing

Updated on October 11, 2009

Tone is a general word which describes writers' attitudes toward their subject matter and audience. There are as many different kinds of tones as there are emotions. Depending on how the writer feels, an article may sound humorous, ironic, indignant, or solemn, to name but a few of the possible choices. In addition to presenting a specific attitude, a good writer gains credibility by maintaining a tone which is generally calm, reasonable, and sincere.

While it is impractical to analyze all the various kinds of tones that can be found in articles, it is nevertheless beneficial to discuss some of those which repeatedly give writers trouble. Listed below are some tones which should be used carefully or avoided altogether:

Image created by Zsuzsanna Kilin
Image created by Zsuzsanna Kilin


Invective is unrestrained anger, usually expressed in the form of violent accusation or denunciation. Let's suppose, for example, you hear a friend argue that "anyone who votes for Joe Smith is a Fascist pig"; whether you support Smith or not, you are probably offended by your friend's abusive tone. Raging emotion, after all, does not sway the opinions of intelligent persons; they need to hear the facts presented in a calm, clear discussion.

Therefore, in your own writing, aim for a reasonable tone. You want your readers to think, "Now here is some­one with a good understanding of the situation, who has evaluated it with a calm, analytical mind."

Keeping a controlled tone doesn't mean you shouldn't feel strongly about your subject, on the contrary, you certainly should, but you should realize that a hysterical or outraged tone defeats your purpose by causing you to sound irrational and therefore untrustworthy. For this reason, you should also avoid using profanity in your articles; the shock value of a "f**k" or "sh!t" isn't worth what you lose in credibility (and besides, is anyone other than your grandmother really shocked by profanity these days?). The most effective way to get your point across is to persuade, not offend, your reader.


In most of your writing you'll discover that a little sarcasm (bitter, derisive remarks) goes a long way. Like invective, too much sarcasm can damage the reasonable tone your article should present. Instead of saying, "You can recognize the supporters of the new health reform bill by the points on the tops of their heads," give your readers some reasons why you believe the health reform proposal is flawed.

Be cautious as sarcasm often backfires by causing the writer to sound like a childish name-caller rather than a judicious commentator.


Irony is a figure of speech whereby the writer or speaker says the opposite of what is meant. For the irony to be successful, however, the audience must understand the writer's true intent.

For example, if you have slopped to school in a rainstorm and your drenched teacher enters the classroom saying, "Ah, nothing like this beautiful sunny weather," you know that your teacher is being ironic.

Perhaps one of the most famous cases of irony occurred in 1938 when Sigmund Freud, the famous Viennese psychiatrist, was arrested by the Nazis. After being harassed by the Gestapo, he was released on the condition that he sign a statement swearing he had been treated well by the secret police. Freud signed it, but he added a few words after his signature: "I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone."

Looking back, we easily recognize Freud's jab at his captors; the Gestapo, however, apparently overlooked the irony and let him go.

While irony is often an effective device, it can also cause great confusion, especially when it is written rather than spoken. Unless your readers thoroughly understand your position in the first place, they may become confused by what appears to be a sudden contradiction. Irony that is too subtle, too private, or simply out of context merely complicates the issue. Therefore, you must make certain that your reader has no trouble realizing when your tongue is firmly embedded in your cheek. Like any rhetorical device, its effectiveness is reduced with overkill.

Flippancy or Cuteness

If you sound too flip or bored in your hub ("I hate this topic but since it's 2 a.m., I might as well begin..."), your readers will not take you seriously and, consequently, will disregard whatever you have to say. Writers suffering from cuteness will also antagonize their readers.

For example, let's assume you're writing not writing a hub article but an essay on "Which Person Has Done the Most to Arouse the Laboring Class in Twentieth Century England?" and you begin your essay with a discussion of the man who invented the alarm clock. While that joke might be funny in an appropriate situation, it's not likely to impress your professor, who's looking for serious commentary.

How much cuteness is too much is often a matter of taste, but if you have any doubts about the quality of your humor, leave it out. Also, omit personal messages or comic asides to your teacher (such as "Ha, ha, just kidding, teach!" or "I knew you'd love this part"). Humor is often effective, but remember that the point of any essay or article is to persuade an audience to accept your thesis or argument, not merely to entertain them. In other words, if you use humor, make sure it is appropriate and that it works to help you make your point.


Even if you are so convinced of the rightness of your position that even a burning bush couldn't change your mind, try not to sound smug about it. No one likes to be lectured by someone perched atop the mountain of morality. Instead of preaching, adopt a tone which says, "I believe my position is correct, and I am glad to have this opportunity to explain why."

Then give your reasons and meet objections in a positive but not holier-than-thou manner.


Sentimentality is the excessive show of cheap emotions. Cheap, because they are not deeply felt but evoked by cliches and stock tear-jerking situations.

In the nineteenth century, for example, a typical melodrama played on the sentimentality of the audience by presenting a black-hatted, cold-hearted, mustache-twirling villain tying a golden-haired, pure-hearted "Little Nell" to the railroad tracks after driving her ancient, sickly mother out into a snowdrift. Today, politicians (among others) often appeal to our sentimentality by conjuring up vague images they feel will move us emotionally rather than rationally to take their side: "My friends," says Senator Stereotype, "this fine nation of ours was founded by men like myself, dedicated to the principles of family, flag, and freedom. Vote for me, and let's get back to those precious basics that make life in America so grand."

Such gush is hardly convincing; good writers and speakers use logic and reason to persuade their audience. For example, don't allow yourself to become carried away with emotion as did this student: "My dog, Cud­dles, is the sweetest, most precious little puppy in the world because she loves me for what I am and because she will always be my best friend." In addition to sending the reader into sugar shock, this pas­sage fails to present any sound reasons why anyone should appreciate Cuddles. In other words, be sincere in your writing but don't lose so much control of your emotions that you become mushy or maudlin.


The "voice" of your essay should sound as natural as possible; don't strain to sound scholarly, scientific, or sophisticated. If you write "My summer sojourn through the western states of this grand country was immensely pleasurable" instead of "My vacation last summer in the Rockies was fun," you merely sound phony, not dignified and intellectual. Select only words you know and can use easily. Never write anything you couldn't say in an ordinary conversation.

Image created by Zsuzsanna Kilin
Image created by Zsuzsanna Kilin

To achieve the appropriate tone, be as sincere, forthright, and reasonable as you can. Let the tone of your article establish a basis of mutual respect between you and your reader.


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    • Rick Ogilvie profile image

      Rick Ogilvie 

      10 years ago

      I disagree that an angry, defiant, or discordant tone is always like shooting yourself in the foot. Satire and sarcasm aren't really all that bad either, in my opinion. I'm pretty new to this hub stuff, but I feel inclined to echo tony0724 in that whatever the tone maybe, it's honest. That being said, the things I agree with most in this article are that a writer ought to be mindful of the tone in their words, and that whatever the emotion, it should be honestly, mindfully expressed.

      Whether or not the tone is likeable in a well-written piece though, it's often a matter of personal taste. A tone may be like a melody, but to be fair the genre's of music out there are pretty diverse, with people there to support them all in varying degrees.

      To be clear, I'm not really opposing what you're conveying, I just have a preference for using whatever tone feels right. Honest expression is the intent, what comes from that... well, I say let it come.

    • Hub Llama profile image

      Arctic Llama 

      10 years ago from Denver, CO

      I still have to remind myself of this sometimes. Nice article.

    • lctodd1947 profile image

      Linda Todd 

      10 years ago from Charleston

      Just found this and it is great. I have tried not to sound like a preacher and sometimes we do not intend to sound like we do. Very good advice.


    • loua profile image


      11 years ago from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet

      Well said, its good reminder...Yet not much gets made of a point if ,all, the ingredients are removed !:( Placating an audience only feeds its ego so it might sleep and not notice what is said... Just a thought shared...But, in the end, I do agree that over use of any ingredient spoils the meal...

    • philosophos profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago

      "Tone in an article is like melody to song." beautifully illustrated!

    • Benjimester profile image

      Benji Mester 

      11 years ago from San Diego, California

      Yes, very true. Tone in an article is like melody to song. Having a discordant, angry, or belittling tone is like shooting yourself in the foot.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      11 years ago from Upstate New York

      Yes, true. Well put, too!

    • tony0724 profile image


      11 years ago from san diego calif

      I happen to like sarcasm . But I try to use It In a humorous way ! And I have always liked my tone . It Is not popular but Its Honest !

    • jiberish profile image


      11 years ago from florida

      Good advise, thank you!

    • Carol the Writer profile image

      Carolyn Blacknall 

      11 years ago from Houston, Texas

      So true! Great hub. Thanks for reminding us not to slip into those tones. -Carol


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