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4 things the Government can teach you about poor letter writing

I recently received this letter from Simon Crean. Its purpose was to tell me that after the next Federal election, my home will no longer be in his electorate of Hotham.

Even though this news does not interest me greatly, it is important I am aware of it.

But there’s something else I am now aware of: Mr Crean needs to do a writing course. Or at least his people do.

While I am amazed this letter was sent, I am glad it was. Because it provides an opportunity to learn from the author’s mistakes. (And I am not just talking about typos. But yes, we’ll certainly get to those!)

1. Letter headlines must grab attention – and be specific

There’s no excuse for a boring headline.

“Hotham Electorate” is what Mr Crean went with to grab my attention.

Are we excited yet people?

But that’s not all. The headline is also too vague.

In today’s cluttered world, people make very quick decisions about what they will and will not read. And as writers, we must acknowledge that our letter, email or webpage will only gain the reader’s attention for a few seconds.

In other words, we must learn how to write for scanners.

That’s why specific headlines are important. A specific headline will help your audience immediately understand why you are writing to them. It also ensures they grasp your key message – without needing to read further.

So what headline would I have gone with? Here are some quick ideas:

“Important changes to your voting electorate”
“You no longer reside in the Hotham electorate”
“How Victoria’s electorate redistribution affects you”
“My farewell to you as your Australian Parliamentary Representative”

2.  Keep. Sentences. Short.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Shorter sentences are easier to read and understand. They keep your readers focused.

The opening sentence in Mr Crean’s letter is 33 words long. And the second sentence? Wait for it… 49 words.

I have had a go at rewriting that frightful second sentence.

Mr Crean’s version:

“I have appreciated the opportunity to be your representative in the Australian Parliament and I will continue to offer you and your family member’s [sic] assistance and information with anything involving the Federal Government, including Federal Government Agencies such as Medicare, Centrelink, family payments, citizenship, higher education and aged care.”

My version:

“Thank you for having me as your representative in the Australian Parliament. Although you will soon belong to another electorate, please feel free to ask me any questions about the Federal Government. I will also continue to offer information relating to Medicare, Centrelink, citizenship, family payments, higher education and aged care.

Similar number of words. But now broken up into three sentences instead of one.

3. Remember your humanity

From what I have seen in the media, Mr Crean is reasonably personable. But reading this letter, you would never know. Why? Because his tone and expression make him seem stiff and pompous.

Try to be yourself when you write. Opt for a more informal tone than you might normally be inclined to use.  A more human and conversational style helps you appear more likable and tells your readers that you are easy to do business with.

To illustrate my point, I have rewritten that stuffy first paragraph.

My Crean’s version:

“Following the recent redistribution of Federal Electorates in Victoria, it is with regret that I advise that after the next Federal Election you will no longer be domiciled in the electorate of Hotham.”

My version:

“I am writing about the recent redistribution of Victoria’s Federal Electorates and how it affects you. After the next Federal Election, you will no longer live within the Hotham Electorate.”

Here are three ways you can write with more humanity in your business letters:

Replace unfamiliar words with simpler alternatives
Mr Crean used the word ‘domiciled’
What’s wrong with ‘live’?

Avoid unnecessary negative phrases
No need to say: “It is with regret that I advise …” 
Just remove it.

Replace stiff, formal phrases
Don’t say: “I have appreciated the opportunity to …“

Just say: “Thank you for…”

4.  Know your grammar – and proofread your letter!

I found two typos in this short letter. That’s poor form for any business letter. But in a letter with a Federal Government masthead?

Simply inexusable.

The first typo is in the second paragraph, where Mr Crean writes:

“… and I will continue to offer you and your family member’s assistance and information …”

If you find apostrophes confusing too, don’t simply guess and hope for the best. Learn how to use apostrophes correctly.

And the second typo is in the letter’s closing sentence:

“I look forward to continue to be assistance to you.”

How did that happen?  My guess is that it simply wasn’t proofread. Well, not properly.

So how can you make your proofreading more certain? Here are three quick tips:

Allow time to forget
Never proofread your work immediately after you have written it. The longer you can leave it, the better. It will help esure you read what you actually have written – rather than what you think you have written.

Fresh eyes
Find a second pair of eyes to review your work. Other people are not as close to your writing as you are. And they are more likely to pick up errors that you will simply not see.

Read your work out aloud
I know this might feel awkward in a busy office environment. So take yourself away and read your letter or document out aloud elsewhere. It will force you to pay attention to every word and punctuation mark. It works.