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November 2, 2012

Tone It Down – Looking at Meaning in Writing for the Web

The right tone is important. If it’s off, music doesn’t sound quite right. When you’re speaking to somebody, the wrong tone can completely twist the meaning of your words.

Speak too softly and you’ll be painted as accusing and secretive, too enunciating and you’ll be construed as condescending.

True, these assumptions have a lot to do with the context of the physical situation. But just because there is no bodily presence or audible voice doesn’t mean that there is no tone on the Web. If anything, tone is doubly important there.

Not Just Any Word Will Do

On the Web there are no gestures, facial expressions, or other body language. There is no way to communicate intimacy by standing in closer, no way to see someone blush or to behold the intensity of one’s eyes. Words on screens have no volume, presence, or depth. Sarcasm is difficult enough to gauge in person; trying to discern it from text is so difficult, we may miss it altogether.

In reading, our only clues are the context of the surrounding words and sentences. When we read text off a website, we gain the benefit of some visual context: the graphical style and imagery present elsewhere on the site, for instance, can help impart in what mood the text should be consumed.

When decoding tone from screen text you must determine a number of things. Which words are used, and which aren’t? In what order are the words presented and how are the sentences formed? Are they straightforward and concise? Veiled behind clever poetic devices? Hinting and vague? Exciting or bland?

The right word choice can communicate: a light tone or a dark one, business-like curtness or quirky fun. A business that presents itself as quirky can be construed as either fun and inviting or a mangled mess. A restaurant’s website can convey class or smugness. These are fine lines and, admittedly, they are also subjective.

The mood of the audience at the time of reading your screen text can make all the difference. Someone in a foul mood could misinterpret your content entirely. Such a situation, however, is completely outside of your control. All you can do is make sure your published content is written as precisely as possibly to steer the reader into the desired mindset.

That is why tone is so crucial, and its implementation is a very careful and honed art. Just as painters will obsess over the right shade, and musicians dwell on just the right note, so too must writers question the merit of each and every single word.

Tone is the Vanguard

Getting the audience into the right mindset is key to a successful communication exchange.

It doesn’t matter what the exchange consists of – an advertisement (persuasion), information, or emotion – to be received, the written content must be allowed into a receptive host. Not only that, it must find a hospitable nest waiting for it. Otherwise it will soon be discarded.

Paragraphs and sentences contain the information meant to be imparted; but tone helps the reader’s mind prepare to receive and retain that info. The content could be the best, most attractive, most worthwhile topic in all the world, but if it is conveyed poorly, it won’t germinate in any receptive minds.

Doing More With Less

The advent of Twitter and ever-decreasing amounts of text aesthetically allowed on webpages have made word counts more intense. Tone, emotion and mindset must be conveyed in just a few words.

It is literary minimalism and, with such constraints, every detail counts. There is no room for fluff, yet the sentences must flow pleasantly for the reader.

Tone is a complex attribute. Communicating just the right tone requires its own fair share of words. Paring it down to the extreme at the very least risks compromising that tone and, therefore, miscommunicating with the reader.

The mark of a good content writer nowadays isn’t merely whether he or she can write well, or even if he or she can write concisely. It comes down to how the writer can manipulate his or her written tone – how they can anticipate the needs of their client and adapt to the demands of the client’s readers.

A good writer can convey the same information but in two entirely different tones, and the audience will believe they read two separate, distinct pieces of content.

What a Difference Can Make

Tone is to content as CSS is to HTML.

Tone is to information as the right tie is to a suit.

Tone is to writing as your first impression is to new people.

Tone is an accent, a container, an impression, a detail, but it is one of the most important ones because it defines to others everything within itself.

What other elements do you think are important to content writing besides tone? Do you think with increasing amounts of video and photos that written tone will become a less prominent issue?

Vince Ginsburg is a web designer and blogger for Corsair Media Services, which specializes in online marketing strategies and development. He doesn’t just look at the current state of the Web to figure out what’s going on, but tries to understand why it’s happening. Always eager for discussion, you can find him at his company blog or Facebook.