Good writing requires good manners. This is especially true when a writer wants the reader to take some action or agree with some opinion. However, if you offend your readers, they probably won’t do what you tell them to do. In fact, one of the easiest ways to offend your readers is to tell them what to do. As we tell our clients, leave the preaching to the preachers.
Words such as “should,” “must,” and “ought to” are preaching words (their official name is modal auxiliaries). These words express an opinion as a general rule or command. While such words might be appropriate from a pulpit, they are not appropriate in formal writing.
Let’s look at an example and see how we can fix it.
We edited a white paper presented to a state legislature education subcommittee. In the conclusion of the paper was the statement “To help more children read, this legislative body SHOULD allocate more money to schools.” In a sense, the writer is saying, “If you don’t allocate more money, you obviously don’t care about children reading! You are bad people unless you do what I tell you to do.” That’s preaching, and it is offensive.
When a writer preaches to the reader, tells the reader what he or she ought to do, the reader may respond in one of three ways.
- Wow, you have really convinced me to change my ways! I’ll do what you tell me to do. (This is the least likely response.)
- I understand your opinion, but I have other options, other things I can do instead. (While this response is very polite, it is also unlikely.)
- Who are you to tell me what to do? You have no authority over me. (This is the most likely response.)
You want to present your ideas as facts and not as opinions. Facts are far more compelling to readers. To produce the most favorable response to your argument or idea, revise your sentences so they are not preaching to your reader. We have a 4-step process for doing this.
- First: Identify the subject.
- Second: Add the word “can” or “will” after the subject, followed by an action word.
- Third: Add the purpose of the action and then the desired action (the “ought to” action).
- Fourth: Remove “can” or “will.” This last step is optional, depending on whether or not it strengthens the sentence.
This process works in almost every case. Here’s what happens when we apply these steps to the sentence above.
- Original: To help more children read, this legislative body SHOULD allocate more money to schools.
- First step: This legislative body.
- Second step: This legislative body will help
- Third step: This legislative body will help children learn to read by allocating more money to schools.
- Fourth step: This legislative body help children learn to read by allocating more money to schools. (Removing “will” doesn’t work in this sentence, so we used the sentence in the third step.)
Now that this sentence is no longer preaching, we might consider revising it in other ways. However, it is superior to the original. The sentence has a strong, positive tone. It expresses a fact and not an opinion, and it is more likely to produce the reader response the writer desired.
Some people like telling others what they should or should not do. We have been guilty of this, too. We used to tell clients, “You should not preach to your readers.” Now we tell them, “You persuade your readers when you use this strategy and leave the preaching to preachers.”
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