dedication, programs, hardware, and lines of
isnt whether the group should exist but what it
authority. But such broad language isnt likely to
evoke in a readers mind the same experiences it
evokes in a writers. Lazy writing overuses such
vague terms. Often it weakens them further by
substituting adjectives; for example: immense
dedication, enhanced programs, viable hardware,
and responsive lines of authority.
faster method; cheaper
Tone a writers attitude toward the subject
or readerscauses relatively few problems in
routine letters. The rules are straight forward.
Subordinates may suggest, request, or recom-
mend, but only superiors may direct. Although
pronouns are acceptable, dont get personal.
Courtesy is required; warmth is not.
Because much of our writing is routine, tone
causes problems when the subject matter is
delicate. The more sensitive the reader or issue,
the more careful we must be to promote good will.
Tactlessness in writing suggests clumsiness in
general. When feelings are involved, one misused
word can make an enemy.
What do you think of an organization that
would send a letter containing the following
At our last meeting you requested agenda
topics for a meeting of the Committee on
Atmosphere and Oceans. I certainly sup-
port this interagency grouping as it
may serve as an appropriate forum for
addressing our marine technology needs
The first sentence is just lazy, for it does no
more than repeat the request. The real trouble
comes from the second sentence, whose attempt
at good will backfires. Certainly is a needless
intensifier, like many words ending in /y.
Interagency grouping is pompous for group.
Needs and concerns add bulk; only one of the
words is needed. Certainly support this is
undermined by it may serve. May serve? The issue
The person who signed the letter improved the
passage by dropping the second sentence and
making the first one do more work:
As you requested, I am submitting some
agenda topics for the meeting of the
Committee on Atmosphere and Oceans.
Now imagine you have asked for more time
to complete a correspondence course. Here is
the last sentence of the letter that turns you
If we can be of further assistance, please
do not hesitate to write.
Beware of such rubber-stamp endings. They
dont improve good letters or save bad ones. To
the reader whose request has been denied, further
assistance promises further disappointment. The
closing sentence should be dropped entirely or tied
to the rest of the letter:
This setback aside, we hope you will take
advantage of other correspondence courses
available to you.
Most no answers need some explanation. Yes
answers need little explanation because readers get
what they want.
Finally, imagine you are a reservist who has
asked to stay on active duty even though you have
a serious illness. How would the following answer
Because you have failed to pass the
prescribed physical examination, you will
be removed from active duty.
Failed? Removed? Those words hint at crime
and punishment. To avoid such tactlessness, the
writer should have used positive wording.
Opportunity is limited.
Competition is keen.
Stop writing badly.
Start writing well.
Dont use the small
Use the big hoist.
The cup is half empty.
The cup is half full.