Setting the Tone of Voice

In my previous post, I mentioned how the reader sets the tone when reading letters/emails. The reader cannot see the writer’s facial expressions or hear the tone of voice, so messages received via email can often be misinterpreted.

Constructive criticism can be mistaken as a brutal attack, so if things aren’t clear, it’s best for the reader to follow up with questions and not to retaliate with insults. Take a breath, reread the message, and if the response still seems as an attack, call them and ask for clarification, if you value the relationship with the person.

Sometimes the writer tells a joke and that, too, can be taken the wrong way. Let me give a personal example.

When I was an undergraduate, I was working on my first sci-fi novel, Predators of Darkness, which has a great deal of genetics manipulation involved. I had taken a genetics course and the professor was a wonderfully great person. He liked to have questions asked that challenged his mind about genetics.

I wrote an email to him one evening, perhaps the next semester after I had taken genetics under his instruction, and I asked him specific questions about what a scientist could do to manipulate the genome is such a way for creatures to alter their appearances. While I knew scientists could never achieve the science of these bloodthirsty beasts in my novel, I mentioned that I wanted the science in the book to be realistic in its approach. I sent the email, eager to get his feedback.

For whatever reason, I was unable to check my email the previous day. This was when the Internet was just being established, and the only way I had to check my email was by going to the campus computer center. Cellphones weren’t yet a common thing.

So two days after I sent the professor the email, I went to the computer lab and logged into my email account. I had two emails from the professor, and I was quite excited. I opened the first email, which had been his reply from the night I had sent my questions, and my heart dropped into my stomach.

The email stated: “I do not like the way that Hollywood and novels use science, and it will be a cold day in Hell before I reply to these questions.”

Wow. I was crushed and now fearful of opening the second email. I wasn’t sure how to handle what I had just read. It just didn’t seem like his typical reply. How bad was his next email?

The second email had been sent the following morning after my queries. I braced myself as I opened it, not certain what to expect. He opened with: “Well, last night was pretty cold (heavy frost since it was winter) … Then he proceeded to lengthily answer my questions with all the possible genetic experiments that could be performed to achieve possible solutions for the science in the novel.

His first email had been a joke. Perhaps my questions had challenged him to figure out an answer to the questions and maybe had him spinning possible ideas? I don’t know. I cannot imagine how I’d have taken the joke had I answered his email the evening he had sent it. The tone was set by me, and even now, there’s no way I would have thought of his first response as a joke. Emoticons didn’t exist yet. I would have been totally devastated until reading his second email the following morning, if I opened it at all. However, the information he gave me in the second email was priceless.

So remember to be careful in how you interpret someone’s email response to your questions or written queries. If you’re a writer, sending out mass queries to agencies across the country, don’t despair when you get a rejection. In fact, if an editor or agent actually gives you a personal response and not a form rejection, rejoice! That usually means they’ve like at least something with your proposal or submission. Lack of time is usually why agencies send form rejections. Another reason might well be that they understand how readers might misinterpret their feedback and don’t want to receive insulting replies.

If the conversation between you and another person is over an important issue or a personal problem, or if you’ve had a heated argument in person and want to apologize and reach out, it’s best to speak in person, so you don’t misunderstand the other person’s response. Call them, visit with them in person, or Skype with them so you don’t have the coldness of an email that you will place the tone upon. Important conversations should always be in person.

Until next time …

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