It Ain't What You Say,
It's The Way You Say It....

Jennifer Stewart

What thoughts flashed through your mind when you read these words?

What was your impression of the writer? (Now, now ... don't be like that.)

Did you think to yourself, "this is going to be a very informative and erudite treatise on the use of tone in writing"?


Perhaps you thought, "what sort of dingbat uses 'ain't' these days?"

Closer to the mark? I thought so.

You were responding to the TONE of the writing. Tone is one of those difficult terms: we all know what it means, but it's really hard to explain it.

Tone can best be defined by using an example - when you're trading insults with your best friend, you might say, "I don't want you living next door to me, mate. You'll lower the whole tone of the neighborhood!"

Tone is the pervading atmosphere of a place, or the general impression you receive about something.

Tone is determined by the writer's feelings about the subject matter and the mood he / she was in when writing.


When we speak, we indicate our feelings through the way we use our voice - we can change the pitch, pace and intensity of our voice to show whether we're being serious, sarcastic, sympathetic or sycophantic.

How many times have you heard someone say, "..don't use that tone of voice with me!"?


When we write, we convey the tone through:

  • our choice of words
  • the length and structure of sentences
  • the length and structure of paragraphs
  • the punctuation
  • the order of ideas presented
  • the format we choose to communicate our ideas


Whether you're writing your first home page or updating your business site, the first thing you MUST do, is decide on the tone you want to convey on your site.

What impression are you trying to give? Here are some of the many possibilities:


  • use short sentences and paragraphs
  • include plenty of colloquial expressions
  • ask questions of your reader
  • use contractions e.g. you're, don't, I'll
  • use personal pronouns e.g. I, you, we, us
  • choose shorter, rather than longer words e.g. "he's a quiet chap" rather than, "he is a taciturn fellow"
  • use the active, rather than passive voice e.g. "you must remember to ...." instead of "it must be remembered that...."
  • vary your use of punctuation - dashes (-), ellipses (...), exclamation marks

A casual style is friendly, relaxed and intimate - you feel that the writer is speaking directly to you.


  • sentences and paragraphs are longer and more complex in structure
  • vocabulary is also more complex and specialised (according to the subject matter)
  • punctuation is more formal (no place for dots and dashes here)
  • passive voice can be used (but don't overdo it - it can be too impersonal)
  • personal pronouns are usually avoided in favour of "it", "one" and "they"

A formal style is business-like, no-nonsense, no time to waste writing. It is designed to inspire confidence in the ability of the writer to get on with the job.


  • makes great use of emotive words - consider your response to these pairs of words: home & hovel; confusion & shambles; unemployed & dole bludger. By choosing the appropriate word, it's possible to sway your reader's feelings to your way of thinking.
  • sentences and paragraphs are usually short
  • ideas are organized very simply - in chronological or reverse chronological order
  • content is carefully selected to present one particular point of view
  • personal pronouns are used, especially "us" and "them"

Persuasive writing can be used by advertisers trying to convince us to buy a particular brand of toilet paper or by governments trying to get us to rush out and enlist!

You can see from these short examples, how important it is to work out what tone you want to convey on your site. On the web, you only have a few seconds to convince your readers to stay - if they receive a favorable impression, they'll keep reading, if not ....

Take a look at your home page. What tone does it convey? (Look at the word choice, sentence length, punctuation etc and compare it with the short list above.)

Is this the tone you set out to convey? If not, you now have a few ideas on how to change it.

Jennifer Stewart offers professional writing services for web pages, press releases, advertising material, business reports, content for autoresponders, technical booklets and articles for newsletters. For those who want their own writing double-checked for accuracy, Jennifer offers proof reading or full editing
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2 apr 2001