English is a hybrid of many earlier languages, principally Latin, Greek and
Anglo-Saxon. As such, it’s possible to communicate with a different level of
formality depending on the choice of words used.
For instance, an object might be described as ‘round’ in everyday speech or as ‘circular’ in a technical description. You might describe a show as ‘funny’ to a friend, but as ‘humorous’ in an arts review.
Beginner writers often confuse the two tones, giving their characters long sentences, resulting in unnatural speech. In particular, I find that Victorian novelists were not good at writing an informal tone .
Additionally, the structure of a given sentence can support its tone. It’s a common misconception that a sentence can’t begin with a conjunction (and, but, &c) nor end with a preposition (with, from, &c). While these traits should be avoided in formal writing, you can begin and end a sentence with any words, provided they make sense in context.
An interesting blend of styles can be found in many Bible passages. While the language used tends to be formal in tone, the stories were often passed by word of mouth over several generations before being written. It’s therefore common to find verses that begin with conjunctions, much like someone would speak out loud.
Last week, I had cause to complain to my gym about the provision of a class. I found this relatively easy to compose because in my ‘day job’, I’m accustomed to handling complaints on behalf of a large organisation.
Using my experience of being on the receiving end, I’ve put together three general principles of effective complaining.
Regardless of how you feel, stick to the facts as much as possible
It is tempting to spell out exactly how angry or upset you feel, but an experienced complaint handler will look past any emotional language and find the facts of the case. If you consider that you must tell the organisation how you feel, keep it brief.
Here’s an example with too much emotion:
Your online system took three charges of £15 which meant I had to e-mail customer services and they put a stop on the order, so now my 86-year-old grandma will have to wait for her birthday present and I don’t know how long I’ll be waiting. It’s no good because now I can’t go and see her for another fortnight because I’m on holiday.
Now let’s focus on the facts:
I paid £15 for the item on 24 June, but I discovered your online system had taken this three times at 2:54pm, 2:56pm and 2:57pm. I e-mailed customer services. They put a stop on the order and advised me I would need to wait, but I don’t know how long. I need to find out because the item was supposed to be a birthday present. I’m disappointed because I regularly order from your company.
This version is more effective because we now know when the order was placed and that the customer is still waiting for the item.
Ask questions of the organisation; don’t answer them yourself
If you want to find out information in your complaint, make sure you flag up your questions as clearly as possible. Consider this example:
Why do you charge as much for a cup of boiling water as you do for a coffee? I don’t know any other company that does this and I feel it’s down to greed.
The question in this version sounds rhetorical because it’s immediately followed by the customer’s own answer. It would be much stronger as:
Why do you charge as much for a cup of boiling water as you do for a coffee?
Or if you feel you need to add extra information, place the question at the end of the sentence:
I don’t know any other company that charges for a cup of boiling water, let alone as much as for a cup of coffee. Why does your company do this?
The two versions above send a strong signal to the complaint handler that this is a question to be answered.
If something is good, say so
Organisations like to hear positive reinforcement. If there is something great in an otherwise negative situation, it doesn’t weaken your complaint to point it out.
I always pop into your shop at lunchtime. It’s always busy, but only two out of the three checkouts are ever on. The staff are always helpful and friendly, but the lack of a third cashier causes long queues.
In this instance, the handler knows that the customer has nothing against the behaviour of the staff, only that there aren’t enough at lunchtime.
When you receive a reply, have a look at the wording, especially if the response is not the one you wanted. It will probably follow this structure:
Thank you for your e-mail. We’re glad to hear you enjoy shopping with us.
We would like to be able to put on all three checkouts. Unfortunately, due to staff illness, this isn’t currently possible.
However, we understand your frustration at the queues. As such, you might be interested to know that we intend to install self-service checkouts in the next few months in addition to the staffed ones we already have.
We have here a positive statement, followed by a negative one, capped off with something else positive. This structure acknowledges there is a problem but delivers the news in such a way that the customer shouldn’t feel too let down.
Regular readers will know that I’m an avid blogger; I produce an entry every week come rain, shine or public holiday.
Always open to an alternative point of view, however, I clicked on a sponsored post a couple of weeks ago about the topic of how blogging doesn’t lead to book sales. Sponsored posts are usually an indicator of quality, often containing persuasive text and statistics to support the blogger’s point of view.
In this case, an author was selling a book via Kindle about how to increase Kindle sales, but using what amounted to a 3,700-word rant. I then headed to the author’s Amazon page to read what others had to say about this guy; the consensus was that the information was useful, but they objected to some unnecessary and offensive material within the text. In short, the writer had adopted the wrong tone.
Judging the tone of a piece can be a tricky business. Something meant in a satirical or sarcastic manner can be interpreted as serious or libellous, and that’s partly why I believe it’s important to take a break from a piece and to look at it later with fresh eyes.
But this sponsored post wasn’t a one-off piece written on a bad day. Everywhere this author had been published, there appeared the same attitude and the same comments. The reason I’m not linking to his site isn’t to do with the tone of that page; he’s also a pickup artist, so I’d rather not drive any more traffic there.
Fortunately, there are countless other examples available. I’d like to single out the Washington Post as having a particular problem. Consider these two headlines, published around six months apart:
In both cases, we have an accusation. Firstly, the reader is told they know nothing about US Independence Day. Secondly, it’s the sub-headline that causes a problem; it assumes that the reader has no mental impairment. This is a deliberate move from the publication to anger the reader and therefore generate a click.
What I haven’t been able to find is why we as a culture haven’t collectively learnt to ignore these sensationalist tactics, just as many users have become selectively blind to banner and sidebar advertising.
In my years of running this blog, I probably haven’t judged my tone correctly in every single entry. However, I always aim to bring people on board by moderating my words in such a way that people are engaged, not outraged.
Looking back over the last three months, each week has attracted between two and eight presses of the Like button, plus the occasional new follower. I’d much rather have two engaged readers than have a hundred people visit, be offended, and leave permanently.
I hadn’t written a response blog for years, and now this is my second in a fortnight. But this time, it was requested.
Scott Graham runs Suited Sorted on Blogspot, where he has recently re-focused on Android technology, although he has back entries discussing music, television, holidays, and weight loss. He has asked for some constructive criticism about the page, and with ten years’ blogging experience, I reckon I’m qualified to pass on some tips.
Tone, spelling, and grammar
Scott wonders if he’s a little too conversational. There’s a certain style that many bloggers go for, whether they mean to or not. The closest off-line equivalent is an opinion column in a newspaper. You’re telling the reader your view on a particular matter, but using everyday spoken words. For instance, you’ll say asked for rather than requested, or use contractions like can’t instead of cannot.
But this isn’t a licence to spell words any old way, or leave out punctuation where it’s needed. Almost every piece of blogging software has a spellchecker. Spelling extensions are available for Firefox and Chrome, most mobile phones have the facility built-in, and the latest edition of Microsoft Word even lets you post to WordPress directly. If the reader doesn’t have to decode what you’re trying to tell them, your message will come across much stronger.
Scott, you’re doing fine on that front.
Newspapers and magazines learnt early on that long articles do not translate well to the Web. When you’re reading a three-page printed interview, your neck automatically moves downwards as your eyes follow the text, where scrolling down with your hands requires more conscious effort. A normal screen – not an e-ink display – is also brighter than a page, so it’s harder to read from.
That’s why I restrict my paragraphs to about three to six lines, and leave a clear line between each one. A lot of people will give up reading a wall of text, if they attempt it at all.
Your paragraphs can be quite long, Scott, but certainly not the dreaded wall.
Using the site analytics tools on WordPress, I’ve found that my posts attract more attention and reaction if I post them between around 6pm and 10pm Monday to Friday. Entries made at any time on Saturday or Sunday simply don’t seem to be noticed. Certain tags also seem to generate interest, while others have no effect.
For years, I posted with LiveJournal and tagged my entries. I very much accepted that hardly anyone except my friends read the page, as they were the only ones to comment. But when I moved to WordPress, I realised I’d been missing out on this vital piece of analysis. Everyone will be different, and some will find that daytime or weekend posts work for them.
So keep tagging your entries, Scott, and have a look at Blogspot’s analysis tools to find out exactly when people are reading you. I hope you’ve found this critique helpful.
To everyone else, I’ll be pleased if any of my suggestions help you with your own blogging.