Rudolf Flesch, a specialist in writing skills,
ran classes for over thirty years for civil
servants, lawyers, bankers and the like, on writing
Two tips he stressed over and over again in his classes.
The first: move heaven and earth to wean yourself from
the inhibitions and nervous habits that your
schoolteachers, bless 'em, have bequeathed to you.
Leave no stone unturned to rid yourself of the awkward,
stilted and artificial writing styles that have been
reinforced daily since your early childhood.
The second: when you write a letter or the like - even if
it's a business letter you'd normally place in the "highly
formal" category - imagine that the addressee were
sitting right there, on the other side of your desk.
Relax. If you really believed the recipient was with you in the
room, you would never have the effrontery to begin with
"please be advised" or "we wish to inform you".
|Imagine that the addressee were sitting right there, on the other side of your desk...
Incidentally, I've a confession to make. I'm a fairly experienced
writer, but time and time again, I find myself committing
the very offences that would make Rudolf Flesch cringe.
I'm a sinner! But then - I am aware of it. I try to catch myself in the act.
And when I succeed, I'm pretty ruthless with myself.
When Flesch says you should imagine the person you're writing to you is
right there with you in the room, it doesn't mean that informality is
appropriate for all categories of written documents. But more often than not,
it's regarded today as a sign of professionalism, rather than the
More importantly, it's far more effective, as we'll see.
And whichever way you look at it, effective communication is the name of the game!
Incidentally, you'll notice that I said we spoke about...
rather than we wrote about. I can't see you as I write. All I can
see is my monitor and it's not much of a conversationalist. All the same,
I'm using talking words all the time.
I recall my school days in South Africa, round about half a
century ago. At the end of every term, we wrote exams, and one
paper was always called "English Composition."
From the lowest grade to the highest, the format was about the
same. There were generally two questions: The first would begin:
"Write an essay of about 500 words on one of the following
topics..." The second would be the same, with "letter"
substituted for "essay".
Between examinations, the teachers would drum a multitude of
rules into our impressionable heads, always accompanied by grim
warnings about the terrible consequences of non-compliance! Many
of these rules directly contradict what I'm telling you to do
Have you ever taken a course in public speaking?
When you do a public speaking course, you don't hear much
about grammar and vocabulary. Instead you learn not to be embarrassed,
to overcome your inhibitions, to speak without a prepared script
and to reach out to the audience in front of you.
We're not saying that good grammar and such things aren't
important in writing. They're very important.
But they're not the
essence. In some ways, writing is so much harder than public
speaking, because your audience isn't right there in front of
you. But the object of the whole exercise is to break through the
invisible barrier that separates writer and reader.
Notice that question I asked three paragraphs ago? Of course,
this is one of the tricks we use to tear down that very barrier.
I could have saved a lot of words by leading right in with:
"Those who have taken public speaking course know that..."
But a question has a more intimate, personal ring. With a bit of luck,
I'll even make you feel I'm talking directly to YOU. Why? Because
a person normally peppers his everyday conversation with millions
For precisely the same reason, this article, is full of word contractions. That is to say: I
write "they're" rather than "they are";
"I'll" and not "I will."
Certainly sounds more cozy, you will -oops, you'll admit.
"Yes," you may well protest, "let's assume I'm
a bank manager or
the like? Can I really use that style in writing to my clients?
And oh my gosh - what if I'm some kind of government official?"
(We won't talk of lawyers for the moment - they're a special
class of headache, which we'll have to deal with separately.)
The rejoinder is: "Sure, you can." When you write a
letter, you want to make your point quickly and effectively.
Further, you're looking for a response: you want action. An
informal style, rather than one of prim and proper
conventionality, is more likely to do the trick.
For all that, you could ask me a very strong question:
"This makes sense when you want to be friendly: when you're
looking to get the business of a potential customer, or to
retain that of an existing one.But what if I deliberately need a
stiff and formal tone, as when I'm writing a letter of demand to
We can do no better than to quote an example direct from
Flesch. Compare these two extracts:
"It is imperative that you submit the above amount within
days. Failure on your part to comply may result in legal action
at your expense."
"If you don't pay this amount within five days, we'll
action at your expense."
Which of these two versions is more likely to startle the
recipient out of his wits?
You be the judge!