Making every word tell

The website of proofreader Paul Dalling features a wonderfully characterful piece of writing by Nick Asbury. Designed with sympathetic simplicity by Wheatcroft&Co, this modest narrative attains a power of expression many better-funded communications will never achieve.

The opening paragraph manages the feat of compressing three powerful devices into just 32 words. First, it sets up a potential disagreement between two ideas – ‘Or is it? – and there’s nothing more irresistible to a reader than conflict. As Shakespeare knew, we readers hanker after resolution while drawing pleasure from the energy of opposing forces. But the third sentence takes us further still, making us question what we have read, and even review our ability to read accurately. And then we’re presented with the point of the piece – ‘That’s where a good proofreader come in’. Sic.

Naturally, the writer now ushers his client onto the stage, and the detail and personality flow. Spell-check ‘will thin a sentience like this is fine’ is a wry, linguistically rich way to express an important idea. It also counters a possible reason not to bother calling in a human to mind your language. The punch line in ‘Fact checking’ is simply terrific. And ‘damaged crudibility’ not only keeps the tone going to the end, it manages to name a type of ignominious outcome many of us know all too well.

Like many examples of powerful copywriting, this piece is satisfyingly complete. There are no awkward extensions or missing progressions. The thoughts connect, the voice is consistent, and it’s clear what is being said and why. It brings to life one of my favourite passages on writing technique, from William Strunk’s The Elements of Style. ‘A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. ’

Every word in the Dalling website speaks volumes for the business it represents. That takes hard work and talent, but there’s something more fundamental at work here than perspiration and inspiration. The parameters for what a writer and designer can achieve are set by the ability of their client to appreciate readers. By trusting the reader to get both the jokes and the bigger picture, this client has cleared ground so that something interesting and memorable can occur. Many other proofreaders would have been far too anxious about their website featuring errors to let this piece of writing happen. If your service involves correcting language your marketing material shouldn’t feature mistakes, right? Wrong, in this case at least.

The parameters for what a writer and designer can achieve are set by the ability of their client to appreciate readersThis trust in readers to understand and respond is often missing in many copywriting processes, particularly those taking place in and around large organisations. Without confidence in your audience you can’t produce writing with personality. Business writing connects one group of people (the business) with another (the readers), but too often the human ends of the communication process are forgotten, or viewed with suspicion. Small wonder impersonal, indifferent business writing remains the norm. As writers we must develop new and better ways to inspire our clients to trust their readers – and, ultimately, they are their readers. This requires us to keep humanising the writing process in the face of cynicism about people’s desire to read, and anxiety about using the full breadth of language in a business context. Unless we do, we’ll remain forever trapped in the open prison of Plain English.

Tim An article on business writing by Tim Rich of 26

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