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|T.I. #93, Winter ’89|
My cousins, in this Winter season, we turn to the great indoor activities of the SCA:
writing reports to show what we’ve done, and writing letters to get people to do
things for us. No, keep reading! Persuasive writing is part of all our lives—even
routine reports include an element of the craft, and damage control and complaints
call for real artistry. Though we don’t put it on the Society’s lists of honored
skills, persuasive writing absorbs an awful lot of our energy.
“Absorbs” is a good word for it. All over the Known World, people are pouring energy into problems and words onto paper when they’d rather be building armor or calligraphing scrolls, and their lives are heating up as a result. Their energy is going to waste. Not all of it, not everywhere, of course, but enough words are wasted every month to keep the world in turmoil.
I’m not talking about grammar. You don’t have to be a good writer to write effectively, and you can write very well indeed and spoil everything. Whatever skill you have, the way to use it to best advantage—and get something done via words on paper—is to write for your reader, instead of for yourself.
Unfortunately, the “natural” way of writing takes you in the opposite direction. It feels natural to write what’s on your mind, and it takes effort to figure out what your reader needs to know. However, while the old saying, “Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop!” is good enough advice for story-telling, it’s a disaster for persuasive writing. Reports and complaints rarely have a story-teller’s willing audience. If you just tell your tale, you’re likely to lose your reader’s interest, or to inspire action very different from what you expected.
On the other hand, a bit of thought about your reader can do a lot for your chance of success. If you know the person you’re writing for, fine; picture him on a bad day. If you don’t, assume the worst. I used to tell my fellow auditors a report was doomed if they wrote it for an intelligent manager who cared deeply about the performance of the office—they had to write it for a political appointee with indigestion who had just opened an envelope full of divorce papers. Only then would it be clear enough to get action. The same thing works in the SCA. You have to compete with everything else in your reader’s life, so write for a distracted ogre even if you’re sure you’re dealing with a person of wisdom and compassion.
Once you’ve got a suitably intimidating mental image,
think about the internal dialogue that will greet your report or letter when it arrives.
You’ll probably have to contend with something along these lines:
◊ “Why am I reading this?” It’s very difficult to read intelligently (and willingly) without knowing why it’s necessary, so make sure your reader has the context first. This is simple for a routine report—the customary salutation identifies you and your reason for writing. All you need to do to complete the picture is to state whether or not you’ve got trouble and (if the latter) whether or not you’ll need help. If it’s not routine, open with a couple of lines on who you are and why your troubles are your reader’s business.
◊ “What’s wrong?” Masses of detail will hide your message. If people got sick after a feast where the soup was contaminated because a cat jumped into the pot and the cook insisted on serving it anyway, DON’T begin by describing the cat and the reason it was living in the kitchen. Get to the, ah, meat of the matter first. Explaining a problem is very different from investigating one. On your own, you have to take random strands of information and weave them into a conclusion, but once you’ve got a conclusion, you don’t have to drag a reader through the whole tangle. Start with the end point and all the detail will fall into place. Besides the conclusion, your opening should include a sketch of the solution you have in mind, so even the least patient reader will come away with the essentials of what you want to say.
◊ “Prove it!” Once you’ve identified the problem, tell enough about it to show that it’s real and needs attention. Then add anything that might lead to a different conclusion (“It may not have been the cat; lots of people ate the soup and didn’t get sick”) and explain why you disagree. Resist the temptation to stick to your own side—your reader will probably check around before taking action, and you’re way ahead if you’ve already dealt with the counter-arguments before anyone else brings them up.
◊ “What do you want me to do?” Be specific—change the rules, fire the cook, send condolences to the hospital—or else say straight out that you can’t think of anything useful to do, but still feel the report is necessary. You may not get exactly what you ask for, but you’re more apt to be pleased with the results if you explain what you want than if you leave your reader to guess.
◊ “Why should I bother?” Reinforce your request with a conservative estimate of the consequences of ignoring the problem, and the benefits of doing as you ask. Avoid extreme statements—no one will think less of your judgment if you’ve done such a good job of persuasion that you now seem to be understating the case, but too much drama can move a doubtful reader to dismiss you out of hand.
Be as brief as you can, putting in just enough detail to make your point without drowning your reader. If the problem is very complex, include both a summary and a complete narrative. You’ll find that the easier it is to follow your argument, the better the chance that your reader will act as you wish.
Remember how good it feels to help someone who respects you (and to frustrate someone who insults you) and try to aim for a positive response. Of course, your reader may not be able to help you no matter how nice you are, and may have enough detachment to see that your problem deserves solving even if you’re obnoxious, but why tempt fate? Write simply and courteously, and use phrases that assume agreement. “I think it’s necessary to...” is much smoother than “If you had any sense, you’d...” When you’re done with your report or letter, go over your words and try to imagine how you’d react if someone sent them to you. If you’re not feeling helpful when you finish reading, it’s time for another draft!
When you sit down to work on an unpleasant report or a complaint, you may well find this advice impossible to follow. What you want to say can demand too much of your attention to let you worry about what the reader needs to know. If so, write what you must. Get everything on paper—but DON’T let that draft out of your house. Set it aside for an hour or a day (or a week if you can bear to wait), then go back, decide which elements do most to promote the results you want, and rearrange them for maximum effect.
You have to spend energy on reports and letters; the Society is too big for us to settle everything face to face. For my peace of mind and your own, I hope you’ll spend that energy well—after all, in the Known World as in the natural, waste energy turns to heat instead of light. Let there be more light and less heat on our problems, and your life and mine will be the brighter!
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