06 Sep Why writing well matters: What your command of language reveals about you
Whether you are in sales, customer service, or simply deal with people every day, read this — for the good of humanity.
Having worked in the educational and academic publishing sectors, I have seen truly terrible writing. I have also seen a few gems that made it all feel worthwhile — like I wasn’t chasing the last unicorn.
We publishers (commissioning editors if you’re British) had a running joke about how all the poor — and sometimes just plain abominable— manuscripts we were reading through affected our own language skills and abilities. Except it isn’t really a joke: you are what you read, and if you don’t constantly improve your writing and reading skills, the lack of attention to detail, sloppiness, and, quite frankly, the disrespect that poor writers transmit rub off. Bad habits are easy to pick up. It became a conscious and continuous battle not to fall into the traps that had been laid for us.
We dodged LOL, “how you?”, “trust you well”, and misspelt names and surnames in emails and texts while attempting to preserve the last bastions of the English language.
To some, the idea of good writing may seem elusive, even abstract — and yet we are more obsessed than ever about books, reading habits, and howand what we read. Shouldn’t good writing (and please, God), the ability to spell correctly, be a natural byproduct of all this reading?
Sadly, the opposite seems true. I’ll never forget the day someone handed me a signed copy of his book — he was a self-proclaimed published author, and went along punting himself as such. As I gingerly clasped the grubby copy he thrust into my hands, I hoped that the absolute horror I felt wasn’t rippling through my face. “You charge how much per copy?” I asked in disbelief.
After he’d finished taking a few obligatory selfies he told me that he was working on an entire series. He must have thought I was engrossed in the content as I thumbed through page after page of an exercise in navel-gazing, wondering in whose garage this book had been printed and bound. The title doesn’t make any sense, it is not typeset, and it clearly was not edited or proofread. It now sits dolefully on my bookshelf: I can’t bring myself to pick it up, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable donating it to the local library.
A poor writer is a thief. They steal your time, your emotional investment, and your enthusiasm for reading. Their lazy, self-indulgent tripe leaves you feeling drained and bored. No one wants to feel like that, and no one wants to spend their precious time (or money) investing in something with little or no return…
So, how does this affect you in an everyday, relatable capacity? Chances are, you sent an email or text within the last few minutes. How carefully did you check your response or query? Did you practise the art of good writing and clear communication or did you send in haste while you rushed off to a meeting or to make yourself another cup of coffee?
Take a look at the emails below from employees at three different companies.
Exhibit 1 a) is a response to my request for a refund after I received a product that had expired more than six months prior to purchase.
Exhibit 1 a): How many typos can you spot?
Here’s my line-by-line analysis.
Greeting: An upper case ‘m’ in “Morning”. Why?
First sentence: What does “Thank you for your email although disappointing” mean? Does she mean my email is disappointing her? I’m the one who received the expired stock, so why is my email letting her down?
Second sentence: Learn how to spell apologise (I’ll even accept the US spelling).
Third sentence: “I have attention this” — I have no words.
Fourth sentence: “May I refund you in _____________ points?” I couldn’t bring myself to type the extra spaces between ‘points’ and the question mark. And no, I made it clear in my previous correspondence that I want a cash refund or a replacement that was not expired. I’m not planning to purchase anything more from a company that doesn’t check their stock or which can’t be bothered to read or respond to emails properly, thanks.
“We apologies again for the disappointment.” Please don’t [apologise] — nothing can make up for you butchering the English language, but kudos for spelling disappointment correctly!
Exhibit 1 b) shows the feedback I received shortly after.
Exhibit 1 b): Feedback received
Greeting: The dreaded upper case ‘m’ again.
First sentence: Learn to use articles — “the” is important.
Conclusion: She needs to refund me, sadly. So, she is sad about having to refund me then? Positively delightful customer service. I’ll say nothing about the extra spaces if I get my money back.
Moving on to Exhibit 2: A colleague forwarded me the correspondence below a few weeks ago. We had collaborated on a project, and he wanted to know if the email he’d received from the client was legitimate.
Well, if you are going to write to someone, at least take the trouble to spell their name correctly. There is also no need to state their full name. Seems like we have a trend with unnecessary capitalisation in this company too (insert screaming face emoji).
If you look closely, you’ll see that two different fonts have been used — indicating that the list provided has been copied and pasted. Please, people, select ‘Paste as plain text’ if you are going to do that.
The rest of the mail is so cringeworthy that I needn’t comment any further, except to say that a company’s reputation is only as good as its employees’ communication skills.
I’ve included this last example to restore your faith in humankind and our linguistic capability (somewhat).
Context: I gave this pizza company’s online ordering system a five-star rating. The request referred to pertains to whether I would be able to order a gluten-free base with vegan cheese in a more direct way.
The response is carefully considered and demonstrates that my correspondent took the time to read through my request while acknowledging me for the five-star rating. She also outlines the steps I need to follow next time I order. This does indeed make them more awesome — much more awesome than the other examples. However, I cannot ignore the language and punctuation errors.
In a perfect world, I would have liked the response to read as follows:
Thank you for rating our platform. We are thrilled to have met your expectations!
With regard to your request: You can choose a gluten-free focaccia base with vegan cheese as a topping (this can be selected from the ‘Extra cheese toppings’ sub-menu).
I’m well aware that it is not a perfect world, and I do not expect anyone to demonstrate perfect command of language all the time. I understand that English is not necessarily a person’s mother tongue, or even their second, third, or fourth language. Speaking and writing are two different proficiencies — and practice makes perfect for everyone. However, my appeal is: use language thoughtfully, with care, and with precision whenever possible.
If you don’t, you risk your reputation — personal and professional. You also alienate yourself from your correspondent/s when you do not make the time and effort to read, understand, and answer in a considered manner. Sloppy writing is a mark of disrespect: you are confirming that you cannot be bothered about what the other person is asking of you, and that they should figure out your indecipherable mess on their own. The image and corresponding text below is a perfect illustration of my point.
Every time you put finger to keyboard you have a choice: send a message laden with self-inflation, or send one that shows you care.