Tone Tenets

By on August 3rd, 2010 Categories: Inside

Have you ever read a web or magazine article that was supposed to be helpful, but instead made you feel offended or raised more questions than answers?

As Senior Editor of, I review a large portion of the medical content that lives on our site. A critical component of our work is the feeling, or “tone,” our content conveys. We strive to use a tone that’s inclusive and respectful of all types of patient experiences. And as a former patient, if something we say seems as though it will set off alarm bells, I work to make sure that it won’t. Finding the right tone means anticipating the way information may be perceived by our varied audience — and providing the context and explanation that presents a complete picture.

Here are the basic “tone tenets” used by’s writers:

Avoid making assumptions about how the reader feels.

What not to do: “Relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, may help you dread chemotherapy a little less.”

This statement assumes that the entire audience has an experience of dread when thinking about chemotherapy. In actuality, there are people who don’t necessarily feel dread about their upcoming chemo treatments.

Edit: “If you’re feeling uneasy about chemotherapy, you might want to try relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery.” Using an “if” phrase leaves the possibility open. Maybe you’re experiencing unease; maybe not.

Avoid mischaracterizing the reader’s experience.

What not to do: “Complementary therapies may enhance your sense of physical and mental well-being. As you look at the challenge of breast cancer treatment in a new way, you may be able to function better in your daily life.”

This statement assumes that a.) everyone feels that breast cancer treatment is a challenge, b.) no patient is looking at treatment in the correct way, and c.) all patients are functioning poorly in their daily lives.

Edit: Delete the second sentence; the relevant information has been conveyed in the first.

Avoid informing the reader of what’s best for her.

What not to do: “Before your first chemotherapy session, you’ll want to make sure you have a wig, scarf, or other head covering well in advance.”

This statement suggests that no one undergoing chemotherapy would ever consider walking around bald when in fact, many do!

Edit: “Chemotherapy often causes hair loss. In the weeks before your first session, think about your comfort level with hair loss and plan accordingly. For many people, hair loss triggers some fear and anxiety. Others may find it liberating to not have to wash or style their hair for awhile. Figure out whether you want to have something ready, and if so, what. A wig? Some stylish hats or scarves? Maybe you’d welcome going ‘au natural.’ Everyone’s different.”

Claire Nixon, Editorial Director — Claire directs a team of writers, researchers, content managers, and physicians through the creation of high-integrity web content. She brings 20 years of experience in health communications and journalism to the team, as well as the lens of the patient – she was treated for breast cancer in 1998 and again in 2012. In her off-time, Claire enjoys creative writing, independent films, meditation, and the ocean.


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