Word on a Whim

Formal Writing – finding the balance

Formal writing has become much less formal over the years. This is fine if it makes the message easier to understand, but sometimes frivolity gets in the way of clarity, or the tone makes the reader feel patronised.

I like the style of correspondence that starts with a brief explanation of “Why we are writing to you…” followed by a sub-header, “Action you need to take”.  This immediately lets you know if you must read any further.

Instruction manuals have shifted from the passive “this must be done” to “you must do this”, and in the interest of globalisation, images and diagrams are often used instead of words.

Many years ago, I watched a televised interview with Peter Ustinov and there’s a bit that stuck in my mind because it made me laugh. He used to travel on an overnight train where bedpans were available, with a notice that said, “Passengers are reminded that these receptacles were not designed to receive solids.” I can clearly picture men in suits, sitting round the boardroom table, having a meeting to discuss the wording of the notice. If such receptacles still exist today, I imagine that notice has been replaced by something like this:

Whilst I’m on the subject, NHS information leaflets now have poo all over them! The bowel “takes nutrients and water from food and turns what is left into poo (also known as faeces, stools or bowel motions)”. I guess they take the approach that everyone knows what poo is, but it still jars outside the context of potty training.

Correspondence from banks has become overly friendly and jokey in style, and I recently came a cropper when I was distracted by it …

My debit card is due to expire soon, and I was grateful when the replacement arrived early, meaning I wouldn’t have to switch cards whilst online Christmas shopping was in progress. Ta-da — here’s your shiny new debit card,” said the letter. “Dust off a pen and sign the back.”

Somewhere amongst all the joviality were the last three digits of the account that was linked to this new card. Unfortunately, I was so busy rolling my eyes at the lingo and assuming this was a replacement for the card that was due to expire, that I failed to notice it was linked to my other account – the one with a card that doesn’t expire for another three years. Marvellous.

So, I had to phone the bank and tell them I was an idiot and I’d cut up the wrong card! They can’t hurry along the new one, as it’s currently ‘pending’, whatever that means. Lesson learned … in future I must focus on the important details within the message, and try not to be pedantic about the delivery!


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