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[personal profile] caprices
Today I had to write an e-mail of introduction. I dislike business e-mails on the grounds that I do not understand the rules, and no one teaches them. With novels and creative fiction this is fine, where the unspoken standards are actually hauled out, examined, and gleefully broken. With business e-mails, however, there is most assuredly an unspoken standard, but the closest anyone gets to explaining it is "See this example? Do it like this, but not like this because that's not letting your personality/creativity/special genius shine through!"

Journalism has rules for writing articles and stories, just like carpentry has certain rules for building cabinets. They're not rules to restrict and shut you down, they are rules about what works. Surgery is like this too. The reasoning behind the spacing of sutures is high level science dealing with biology and blood flow and immunologic function.

So I will review the rules I know from journalism. Realistically they are applicable to all writing, but it's such a different approach from all the bloody "let your inner creativity shine through" gurus it is hard to think how to make them apply.

Numbered, but not ranked:

1. The Ladder of Abstraction. Actually a new concept for me too, this is the sort of thing writers are expected to intuit. Using nice solid concrete words like concrete and big abstractions like freedom, justice, what have you, creates a nice firm image in the reader's mind. I think I came across my own version of this reading a biography about Tolstoy and why his books are so great. I'm not fond of Tolstoy, but he did do a nice job finding solid ways to describe the peasantry.

2. Alternate long and short. You can have long sentences -- holy cow can you have long sentences, Hemingway took it to the limit and Joyce took it several pages beyond the limit -- as long as you break them up with short sentences. Short. And then you can go back to something long and complicated, because the short sentences are like little anchors keing the reader from getting lost. Get it?

3. Use short words. Short old words are best, as Churchill put it, not least because you get the less literate demographics, but really, there's a lot of strength to mono-syllabic words.

4. Put your strongest line first. The hook. This one can be less obvious, but starting with a question, a startling image, or something that sets the scene. This one is hard to work into e-mails, I am uncertain if small chat and self-introductions have to be included in that invisible format.

5. Active voice! Verbs! No passive voice unless you have good reason for it (diffusing blame or making a statement boring and non-sensationalist).

6. And adjectives must die. Adverbs even more so. Within reason, of course. After all, if you are explaining how to defuse a bomb, probably need to include "red" in the description of the wire. Adverbs in dialogue tags, on the other hand, are nearly always indefensible. (oh, look at that, and adverb AND an adjective, shame on me)

7. If in doubt, cut it out. (as opposed to the surgeon's motto, a chance to cut is a chance to cure)
8. If it bleeds, it leads. (again, the difference with surgery would be: all bleeding stops...eventually)

9. People respond to emotion. This seems to be the hardest concept for scientists to grasp, who seem to think that interest in science should be pure and untainted by pandering to baser interests, like self-interest. Which has a neat little loophole for altruistic behavior precisely because people respond emotionally as though they felt other's pain and joys. See--it's not a BAD thing, it's a GOOD thing!

10. Grammar is good except when it's better off colloquial. There is a place for that sort of thing, along with aphorisms and vernacular, but very, very sparingly used. Sentence fragments, on the other hand, can be sprikled about like mad! So say I, not sure anyone agrees with me.

11. Repetition is lovely, repetition is good. Repetition can drive a point home.

12. Lists of more than three bore us. If you must, no more than five and really deeply consider numbering them and putting them in a little bulleted list. (and then you can add as many as you want!)

13. Paragraph breaks. Almost as helpful as long-short sentence repetition, and easier to see.

14. Read it aloud. Ignore all these other rules, but read it aloud and you will see what NEEDS to be changed or taken out.

All of these and other things that do not occur to me at one-thirty in the morning are going through my head when I write, though I admit the more structural concepts require more work and do not usually make it into the first draft. You notice I made no mention of inverted triangle, the most treasured of journalistic techniques for constructing a story. Yeah, no, not tonight. I suppose these all apply to business e-mails, really. So maybe what my gripe is, is not that I'm not allowed to use my journalistic flair, it's that business e-mails have an additional layer of etiquette I can't quite see. How do you address anyone, these days, for instance? Mister seems odd, missis even more so, and so, for the people I'm usually writing too, I end up with Professor or Doctor. I like Doctor. No one finds it odd (I suspect Professor gets a double take here and there, but heaven forbid I go so informal as 'mister'. This probably says more about the amount of time I have spent among the overeducated than anything).

Losing my train of thought here. Writing tips! Use 'em.

June 2014

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