Tag Archives: tone


In a recent blog post I commented that for me, the major difference between mood and atmosphere comes down to this: a mood exists primarily within a person; an atmosphere exists primarily in a place.

Now it’s time to turn my attention to tone. The first thing that springs to mind for most people is ‘tone of voice’. You can tell how a person is feeling by the way they say something, how loud or soft their voice is, how fast or slow they speak, by the words they choose and of course if you’re in the same room as the speaker you tune in to their body language and facial expression as well.

Tone in writing is a more complicated beast.

You are trying to figure out the writer’s attitude and feelings towards the topic at hand but the clues to figuring out how they feel are often more subtle than spoken language and the reader must establish the tone without the help of body language, facial expressions, volume and speed of delivery.

So let’s do a little experiment.

Imagine the school receives a phone-call from a parent complaining about some aspect of my teaching. I decide to reply in writing. I have almost endless options open to me in terms of the tone I adopt when I reply – and for the record I don’t buy into the notion that text messages inherently have no tone. They can capture your feelings if you are careful enough when you compose them!

Now look at several potential replies below. To protect the anonymity of my fictional accuser I’ll just refer to them as ‘parent’!

1. Dear Parent,

I wish to apologise unreservedly for accusing your daughter of cheating. I realise that she is a diligent student who simply wished to have the ‘right’ answer, hence her decision to pass off internet research as her own work. However, if she wishes to improve her mastery of this subject and her overall literacy, in future she will need to use this material to write her own responses rather than relying entirely on other people’s expertise.


Ms. O’Connor


2. Dear Parent,

I am writing in response to your recent complaint that I unfairly accused your daughter of cheating. To be precise I accused your daughter of plagiarism as the homework assignment she submitted two weeks late was copied word for word off the internet. All it takes is a simple google search with one sentence of such plagiarised material to reveal the truth, which is that your daughter did in fact cheat. I suggest in future you spend more time assisting your daughter with her homework and less time phoning our school with baseless complaints which are a waste of my time.

Yours etc,

Ms. O’Connor


3. Dear Parent,

Following your recent communication with school management about your daughter’s homework, I wish to arrange a meeting with you, your daughter and if possible your partner to discuss this issue. I realise that not everyone understands the seriousness of plagiarism but I believe this is an important issue that all of our students need to understand, particularly in this era of ubiquitous content freely available online. 

Yours faithfully,

Ms. O’Connor


4. Dear Parent,

Following consultation with my union and their legal representatives, I will not be responding personally to your complaint about my teaching. However, my solicitor will be in contact shortly in relation to slanderous comments made by you in the comments section of our school’s website and on facebook.

I look forward to resolving this matter fully,

Ms. O’Connor

Now ask yourself, what tone have I adopted in each fake letter? Belligerent? Rude? Arrogant? Apologetic? Conciliatory? Defensive? Aggressive? Patronising? Are some of the letters a combination of different tones? Why did I use different methods of signing off in each example? If this really did happen, which tone should I adopt?

Being aware of your tone is really really important in life, no matter who you are or what job you do. If you come across as arrogant and belligerent people simply won’t like you as a person. On the other hand if you assume that you are always the one in the wrong when conflict arises then people may simply walk all over you!

The important thing is to tune in to your own tone particularly when writing because once it’s published you can’t take it back. Be self-aware and perhaps even get someone else to look over your work before submitting it into the public domain. The fact is other people do make judgements about you based on the tone you adopt both in spoken and written communication so the better you become at identifying and controlling tone the better.

Here’s a link to a very good powerpoint with various examples of different tones in writing:








Tone (personal essay)

I love this cartoon from Natalie Dee on fanpop.com

Before Christmas I got my TYs (over 50 of them) and my Leaving Certs to write personal essays. Their essays for the most part were funny, sad, moving, at times mad and in many cases very very brave. Among other things I read about a childhood obsession with goldfish; a superhero granny; being an only child; falling into a river in front of the boy you absolutely love love love; suicide; a haunted church; spontaneous uncontrollable crying spells; and being wrapped in tin foil and carried off a volleyball court on a stretcher…

I also discovered that “a commode is the love child of a wheelchair and a portaloo!

I did notice however that very occasionally a personal essay didn’t ‘ring true‘. It’s hard for me to explain how I knew that the writer was inventing or embellishing a sad story (leaning towards or sometimes completely inventing a fiction) rather than drawing on real life experiences (fact) but when I asked a couple of students about it sure enough they said what they’d written about hadn’t actually happened but they felt compelled to give the personal essay a tragic ending in order to engage the reader emotionally.

Oddly, it had the opposite effect – I enjoyed these essays up to the point where they transformed into melodrama and then I just somehow knew that the writer was trying to force a reaction out of me.

Have a look at this beautiful personal essay – but be warned:

(1) It will make you cry


(2) You could never write this. You are not a thirty-something-yr-old widower with a toddler and a dead wife. You are a 17 or 18yr old Irish leaving cert student and this is the perspective you MUST write from when you write a personal essay in the exams because fundamentally a personal essay IS NOT A SHORT STORY and IS NOT FICTION. Of course you can write about something funny that happened to someone else and pretend it happened to you; of course you can exaggerate for dramatic or humorous effect. But try to write what you know or your essay is in danger of coming across as insincere and false.

Here it is: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/19/telling-toddler-mummys-dead?CMP=twt_gu

Now have a look at this personal essay, whose tone is much more philosophical and opinionated rather than emotional – the tone is completely different but there is no question that it also falls into the category of personal essay.

Here it is (with the longest url in the history of life the universe and everything):


I guess I just want you to realise that you can write a serious opinion piece; an emotional admission; or a funny satire and ALL will still qualify as ‘personal essays’ as long as you write in the first person (“I”) and as long as you are yourself (Irish teenager) not a fictional narrator (a witchdoctor, a talking rubbish bin or a homeless wino).

For clarification of the difference between the personal essay and memoir check this out: http://meghanward.com/blog/2012/08/21/personal-essay-vs-memoir/

That’s all for now folks. Good luck with the mocks revision!