The terrific Leslie O’Flahavan, owner of E-WRITE, and I recently held our first LinkedIn Live broadcast of Fix This Writing! Two Experts Show How to Make Bad Writing Better. Watch the recording and view the writing we discussed below.
The idea behind our broadcast is to take an example of not-very-good writing, explain why it’s not good, and show you how to fix it. We also talk about why the writer wrote it in that not-very-good way. (We’re both writing teachers, so we’ve studied why people write they way they do!) We invite our attendees to ask questions, as well as to offer their insights.
For the first broadcast, we examined the following customer support email that failed.
Our discussion began by recognizing that Jed, the writer, is probably working within a company that doesn’t support his writing skills much–or customer service in general. But we moved quickly into our primary purpose: to help Jed write a better message.
While acknowledging there are many aspects of the original email that could be fixed, I focused on what I believe are the two most important ones.
Fix #1: Make your tone helpful and friendly.
What comes first establishes the tone. I personally don’t want to be thanked when asking for help. For me, that created a negative tone in the original email. But Leslie and others more knowledgable about customer support noted this is the standard opening so I acquiesced.
I did insist that the most important fix I needed at the outset was reassurance that I would get help. In the revised email, I added “we want to help” to create a more helpful and friendly tone in the first sentence. You’ll see that I also used the contraction “we’re.” That’s another way to establish a friendly tone. Of course, casual tone of voice might not work in every organization. That’s depends on the organization’s brand voice.
Fix #2: Structure information in reader-friendly ways.
This fix is so important I might have listed it as #1! Jed’s original email included most of the information a reader needs. But it’s arranged more from his perspective than the reader’s. What the reader needs are instructions that are actionable. Here are some of the ways I altered the structure to be more reader-friendly.
- Arrange information in the order that the reader needs it when acting on it. The information I labeled “OPTIONAL STEP” is frustrating (or perhaps useless) if the reader gets it after they’ve acted on the instructions. In the revised email, I moved that prerequisite information before the primary instructions.
- Make action steps short and number them in a list. I revised Jed’s long sentence with three independent clauses into three, consecutively numbered action steps within a list.
- Differentiate action steps from other information. In the revised email, I used capital letters as a visual cue to all steps. I also used white space to group steps that go together.
You’ll notice other fixes in the revised email. For example, the arrow shows I want to include a photo to show the reader where to find the SD card. In instructions, visual support can be critical for readers.
You’ll also see I fixed the grammar of phrasing such as “does the dash cam cannot turn on” and “…the cam stop working issue.” While it was one of the first things I noticed when reading Jed’s email, I believe the majority of customers asking for help care most about (1) getting that help, especially from someone who is friendly, and (2) understanding the help in a way that allows them to act. Whether the writer can create prose in the reader’s preferred language or style is, at best, a tertiary concern.
As a writing teacher, I’ve found that structure–arranging information–is the easiest thing to learn about pro writing. What do you think?
If you want to become a better writer (or help someone else become one), we hope you’ll join us for the next Fix This Writing! broadcast on July 18!