Yesterday, a student came into my office to ask for help with an assignment. While reviewing his work, I spotted this sentence:
Bluetooth was removed from consideration since all the cars evaluated had this feature.
The context for this assignment is that students are writing a report to an imaginary boss explaining how they chose a particular vehicle to purchase for the company. In this sentence, the student was pointing out that bluetooth capability wasn’t a factor in his decision since all the cars had it. But what stood out to me was that he had framed that as a negative: “Bluetooth was removed from consideration…” There is no reason not to frame this idea as a positive: “All the cars evaluated had bluetooth capabilities, so the decision focused on comparing other vehicle features.”
The content of these two sentences isn’t very different, but the way we feel about the content is a little different. In the first version of the sentence, that fact that all the cars had this feature is presented as a negative or at least as irrelevant. But the reality is that the bluetooth feature made all the cars better choices for the company.
One of my favorite examples of unnecessary negative perspective in writing is this sentence:
Our charity works to reduce illiteracy in children around the world.
This sentence appeared on the website for a non-profit. They try to help children around the world learn to read. What an awesome goal! But the sentence focuses on the negative, lessening illiteracy, which is a good thing, but it’s not the best way to present this idea. Making something smaller is generally perceived as negative, while making something bigger is generally perceived as positive—we gravitate toward growth.
Again, there is no reason the non-profit needed to focus on the negative version of this idea. The positive version would be “Our charity works to increase literacy in children around the world.” The content of the sentences is the same in terms of what the organization is doing, but how we feel about it is different. At best, the original sentence feels neutral, but increasing literacy feels positive, optimistic.
Lots of elements affect our perception of tone in writing; tone is hard to hear in writing, and because it happens in our heads, every word matters. To create positive tone—positive feelings in your audience as they read your messages—work to focus on the positive aspects of your message wherever possible, especially if the central idea is the same but the feelings of the reader will change depending on how you phrase the idea.