Language, and writing, can do one of two things, depending on how it is used: enhance a relationship or damage it. In simple terms, it can help bring people together or push them apart; it can help you accomplish your purposes, or it can hinder you. Language is never neutral.
What does this mean for you as you write? This means you have to think carefully about three issues:
1. What you want to accomplish from the relationship with your reader,
2. What you want to communicate through writing, and
3. What affect your words will have on the relationship.
The central question you are trying to answer is this: Will my writing enhance or damage my relationship with the reader?
When do you need to ask this question? Every time you write. Good writing enhances the relationship; bad writing damages it. When you look at writing this way, from the standpoint of how it affects the relationship, you can begin to make revisions that strengthen your writing and improve the results you get.
To explore this idea, let’s look at a few samples of bad writing, consider how they may affect the relationship with the reader, and then revise them to improve that relationship and accomplish a purpose. In short, let’s turn bad writing into good writing.
Core Strategy 1: Address the topic, not the person.
Situation: Response to an employee who continuously complains about the building temperature
Bad writing: “I’m tired of your complaints about the building temperature. Complaining won’t make it any better.”
Effect: This language makes the topic a “my feelings versus your feelings” conflict. It says that the reason for the disagreeable behavior, i.e., the temperature, is not important. Rather, it says that the writer’s feelings are more important than the complainer’s feelings. This will lead to more complaining, but complaining about the writer.
Good writing: “I, too, am uncomfortable in this heat. Unfortunately, we will have to endure it until this heat wave passes, and the building’s central air system can keep the temperature more comfortable.”
Why this is better: First, it directly addresses the source of the complaint. Second, it promotes solidarity. Third, it doesn’t rely on the writer’s authority over the other person. Fourth, it sticks to facts, not feelings, to persuade the reader.
Core Strategy 2: Use facts, not feelings, opinions, or judgments.
Situation: Letter to the chief of police about graffiti on public property
Writer: community member
Reader: chief of police
Bad writing: “I hate all the graffiti and gang signs on the benches in the park, and the police should do something about it.”
Effect: The writer wants the chief of police to agree about this issue and to take action. This statement won’t do it. Instead the writer sounds like a whiner…because the writer is whining. This statement focuses on feelings and opinions. Also, the word “should” means the writer believes that he or she has the moral authority to determine the right thing to do. Based on this statement, if the police don’t do what the writer tells them to do, they are bad people. People generally don’t respond as desired to this type of moral judgment. In short, the writer is unlikely to get what he or she wants.
Good writing: “The graffiti and gang signs on the park benches are unsightly and cause people to question their safety. With a stronger police presence in the park, this illegal activity will decrease and families will be more comfortable using the park as it was intended.”
Why this is better: The revised statement is better for one main reason. It focuses on facts. Fact: Graffiti is unsightly and creates fear. Fact: Graffiti is illegal. Fact: Police presence will reduce graffiti. Fact: Families will be able to use the park without fearing for their safety. This has no opinions, feelings, or judgments, which are rarely persuasive, or are not nearly as persuasive as facts. (I can argue about your feelings, but I can’t argue about facts.) Also, this doesn’t disrespect the chief of police or assume that writer has the authority to tell him what to do. It communicates the fact that if A happens, B will result. The writer demonstrates respect for the chief of police by allowing him to determine what “should” happen.
Core Strategy 3: Be a-moral
Situation 3: A commenter to an online article is upset that Alabama taxpayers are still being taxed to support a home (closed 72 years ago) and park for Confederate soldiers, all of whom are now dead.
Writer: Article commenter
Reader: Other article readers
Bad Writing: “It’s wrong to keep taxing people for something that was wrong to begin with.”
Effect: By making this a matter of “right vs. wrong,” the writer assumes the moral authority and expertise to determine what is right or wrong. Anyone who disagrees with this writer is, therefore, wrong, regardless of their perspectives, knowledge, and expertise. This stance creates conflict.
Good writing: “Because the initial purpose for these funds no longer exists, the state government no longer needs to collect this tax.”
Why this is better: This version makes an objective statement without injecting any moral judgments. It uses logic not passion. It employs classical argumentation rather than being argumentative. It shows respect for the reader and opens the door for further discussion of the topic.
Core Strategy 4: Help the reader get what he or she wants in order to get what you want.
Situation 4: Advertising text for Safe-ride, a transportation service for people who have a night on the town and, perhaps, too many drinks.
Writer: Advertising agency staffer
Reader: Adult driver who likes to have a few drinks with friends
Bad Writing: “Use Safe-Ride transportation so you don’t get arrested for drunk driving.”
Effect: Most people who have a few drinks before heading home don’t get arrested. This advertising text sets up a false premise, and the target readers likely know this. As a result, the company seems deceitful, and deceit will always damage a relationship. Fear mongering, too, is inappropriate because people don’t necessarily fear getting arrested. Overall, this advertising copy is promising that something bad won’t happen.
Good Writing: “Go out and have a good time with friends. We’ll get you home safely.”
Why this is better: Think about the desired relationship here. The Safe-Ride company wants to establish a business–consumer relationship. It wants customers. On the other hand, members of the target market just want to go out at night and have fun. Instead of focusing on something people don’t want (i.e., getting arrested), it now promises to help people get what they desire: a fun, safe night. By offering what people want, the Safe-Ride company will get what it wants.
Do These Strategies Work?
Yes! We have used these strategies successfully in clients’ grant proposals, academic papers, business reports, advertising copy, nonfiction book manuscripts, and many other types of documents. We have used them, and taught others to use them, when providing consulting services, strategic planning sessions, and program evaluation. We have used them, and taught them, during communications trainings and meeting events. Time and time again, clients have found success through these strategies.
These 4 strategies are strategies to improve relationships. You see, what we’re really doing, as editors, trainers, facilitators, is helping people communicate. That makes us communication specialists. And communication, by definition, is relationship-building so we need to understand how writing affects relationships. As discussed throughout 300 Days of Better Writing, people communicating through writing can employ specific strategies to enhance their relationships with readers and accomplish their goals.