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issue 47

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Training Bulletin Issue 47

The more intelligent our gadgets become, the dumber we get?

Last month, The Independent published an essay called “We built an empire. Now we can’t make a thing”. The title alone should be enough to let you guess the thinking behind this article: that as a nation we are becoming culturally illiterate because we no longer know how to manufacture things. “We do not make – and are losing the knowledge to design – the goods we consume.”

This process has continued throughout history. Skills that we once all had are often today practised only by artists, or they are applied by machines in huge factories that can implement vast economies of scale. Our mobile phones now work as our portable memories. Is this a good thing or a bad one? And what does it have to do with writing? I am not suggesting that we now outsource all our writing to production lines, however.

So a lot has changed – what has this to do with writing?

You would expect that ideas about what constitute good writing have also changed over time. Certainly some of the conventions have changed, as I discussed in the last newsletter. But the underlying concepts are surprisingly stable.

To make some of his points, The Independent’s writer quoted excerpts from The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, by W Julian King, first published in 1944. Along with many enduring truths of good management, it included the following tips for writing:

At Plain Words, we have been promoting ideas like these for over 20 years. Our very name is taken from “The Complete Plain Words”, published by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1954 as a guide to good writing style for civil servants. It has been in print ever since.

Here’s some advice on how to adhere to King’s rules.

Conciseness and clarity

It’s strange to think that we are still struggling to be concise and clear in our business communications. Keeping it short and simple will go some way to address this. Also, make sure you have thought about who your readers are and what they want to know out of your text, rather than what you want to tell them. There is often quite a difference between these.

Dealing with customers

One of the hardest times you have to deal with customers is when responding to a complaint. The tone of your email or letter, as well as what you say and the order in which you say it, can mean the difference between a complaint that escalates and one that is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Personal attention is key when dealing with customers, especially in the matter of complaints. Although it is tempting to use form letters, they take out the personal touch so make sure you adapt them to the specific issue: mention the customer by name, refer to their complaint specifically, using their words if possible and speak in the first person – ‘I’, not ‘We’ or ‘The company’. Avoid generic wording such as ‘Please do not hesitate…’ or ‘We apologise for the inconvenience.’

Boiling matters down

This is not just about being concise. Even short sentences can be full of jargon that makes them difficult to understand. Ask yourself what you would say if you had to explain the matter to your mother, (assuming she is not expert in that subject!) You should find that you will be much more aware of assumptions you are making regarding what technical terms, acronyms and so on your reader understands.

Beware of what you commit to writing

Never has this been more true than now. The biggest danger is emails. It’s so easy to fire off a quick response that commits to something you can’t provide or just comes across as curt or rude.

You also need to be aware that emails are legally binding and that people have been sued for thoughtless messages. Ask yourself if you would say to someone’s face what you have just written. Another good idea when replying to an email is to delete the recipients’ names from the TO field. Do not put them back in until you have re-read your email and considered carefully what you have written. For really critical matters, have a colleague take a quick look as well.

Any time you or your staff spend in learning how to put these ideas into practice will pay dividends throughout your careers. No matter what else comes and goes, the principles of good, simple English have stood the test of time.

To find out more about enduring truths of good writing as presented in our courses, contact us by emailing

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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