Thursday, October 3, 2013

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (4)

In previous posts (1, 2, 3)* I’ve described puerile writing as narcissistic, histrionic and bloated. Today I describe puerile writing with one more adjective: palsy-walsy: “friendly in a way that is not proper or sincere.” Here are three examples, with my reactions:

Example 1

Recently when I tried to sign in to my LinkedIn account, I received this message:
Hmm, that’s not the right password. Please try again or request a new one.
I assume “Hmm” is intended to make me think that this automated response was typed, in real time, by a real human being – a human being who is my pal and writes to me in a conversational style, even using conversational interjections like “Hmm.” This is an insult to my intelligence.

Example 2

Recently I changed my password on Twitter. I received this email:
Woo hoo! Your password has been changed!
What is “Woo hoo!” doing in a business email? I have never seen a grown-up use this expression in writing, and the only people I’ve heard say it aloud were ditzy teenage girls. And why are there two exclamation points in this routine message?

Example 3

Almost every new vendor who writes to me – via email, post card, or letter – tells me that he/she/it is “excited” to have me as a new client. I’m glad to know they’re pleased, but I don’t want them excited. I don’t want their hands to be trembling – especially surgeons and dentists.

The Takeaway: Whenever you write to clients, customers or prospects, show some respect. Use courteous, dignified language. You don’t have to be stuffy. You can be appropriately informal in most situations; for example, the contraction in “We’ve updated your password as you requested” is perfectly fine. Just don’t slobber all over the reader. For more on palsy-walsy offenses, see Ken Smith’s incisive book Junk English.


Summary of the characteristics of
puerile writing and grown-up writing

Puerile writing is:

Narcissistic:  Entertains the author and indulges his whims.
Histrionic:  Injects false excitement into routine transactions.
Bloated:  Indulges in redundancy, circumlocution and tangents.
Palsy-Walsy:  Insinuates a depth of friendship that does not exist.

Grown-up writing is:

Empathic:  Informs, assists and pleases the reader.
Sober:  Maintains an appropriate tone for each message.
Streamlined:  Includes only the essentials and important details.
Courteous:  Shows respect for the reader.

*I apologize for taking more than three years to complete the series.

Update, Thursday, October 10, 2013: When I changed my Netflix plan today, the company’s automated response was, “You have successfully changed your plan to 2 DVDs out at-a-time.” See? No interjections, exclamation points or histrionics. This is how grown-up companies write; it takes no more energy or time than the childish drivel from Twitter.

See disclaimer.

1 comment:

  1. Why do you say that an email from Twitter is a business email?

    Whilst I absolutely agree with your overall point, I think you're being unfair to Twitter here. You are not their customer; they may write very differently to the people who pay them money. Twitter is a social network, not a business service. (The same does not apply to LinkedIn.)

    I suspect this style of writing appeals to the majority of Twitter's millions of non-paying users: Twitter are merely writing for their 'average' target audience.