The Importance of Tone When Writing

October 24, 2018 by Lyla Hage

One aspect of the IELTS Writing test that is important to understand is tone. Tone may be somewhat difficult to describe precisely, and it may take some practice to get it right. However, it is key when communicating. In fact, in our day-to-day life tone should be considered when communicating verbally or in writing, to ensure our message is clear and received in the way we intended. This blog will provide some tips for understanding and using appropriate tone in our writing.

First, let’s review the two sections of the IELTS Writing test for the General Training and Academic tests:

Task 1

  • Academic - a description, summary or explanation of a graph, table, chart or diagram
  • General Training - a letter requesting information or explaining a situation

Task 2

  • For both versions of the IELTS, the second task is to write an essay in response to a point of view, argument or problem.

For each of the tasks above, we must use appropriate tone. For Task 1 and Task 2 on the Academic test, a more formal tone and style is appropriate.

For Task 1 on the General Training test, the letter may be formal, semi-formal, or personal in tone and style depending on the reason for writing and the audience.

For Task 2 General Training, the essay style can be slightly more personal, and slightly less formal than the Academic essay.

handwriting on paper

Formal, semi-formal, personal letters

For the Task 1 General Training letter, there are different types of letters you could be asked to write including: a request, an invitation, an apology, a complaint, or an explanation.

Keep in mind that the type of letter does not always determine whether it should be formal, semi-formal or personal. Rather, to determine the proper tone, you have to consider who you are writing to – your audience – as well as the reason for writing.

Here are some guidelines to help determine the style and tone of your letter:

  • If you are writing to someone you do not know personally and who is in a position of authority or respect, you would usually use a more formal tone. For example, writing a letter of complaint to a local government official or a senior executive.

  • If you are writing to a person you know, but they are in a position of authority, your letter is probably semi-formal. For example, if you are writing to explain a situation to your manager or supervisor, or a letter of complaint to your neighbour who you don’t know very well.

  • For a family member or friend, you would usually write an informal or personal letter. Keep in mind that the reason for writing may alter this slightly. For example, if you write a letter of condolence to a friend, you may be a little more formal because of the reason for the letter.

Please keep in mind that there may be an overlap in styles, and, as the last example shows, a letter may be a combination of styles.  

Adjusting for tone

To ensure the tone is appropriate, consider the following:

  • Vocabulary – For less formal letters, the vocabulary may be colloquial (the way people speak). You may also use idioms or phrasal verbs in less formal letters. For example, formal writing may include a phrase such as “I apologize for the inconvenience”; less formal might be “Sorry for the trouble”. The latter sounds more casual. Another example is “Let me illustrate”, rather than the less formal “Let me show you”.  

  • Sentence structure – Informal letters may have simpler sentences that clearly state our ideas and intentions. In these situations, we can usually be more casual and direct. For more formal letters, we may be more polite, professional, and sometimes a little less direct.
  • Punctuation – For informal letters, we may show our emotions and feelings by using exclamation marks. We can also use contractions (I’m, it’s, he’d, etc.), which are considered less formal.

  • Closing - There are a variety of ways to close a letter. For formal letters, you can use the following:


Many thanks,

Warm regards,

For less formal letters, you can use the following:



Love, (for someone you are very close to)

Students on a brick wall

There is no question that getting the tone correct is an important part of the IELTS Writing test. If the tone is inappropriate, your IELTS examiner will quickly detect it. I suggest you take some time to look online and at practice tests here to help you get a sense of how to write using appropriate tone.

Good luck!

Lyla is an English language instructor working with international students and immigrants in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lyla loves everything about her work, especially helping people reach their language and learning goals.

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