Grandma's Tales

March 30, 2007

Grammar – 32 What is good writing? 3 Conversational style

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:12 pm

I believe in writing in a conversational style. I’ll be the first to admit the style you choose should be appropriate to the topic you are writing on, but there is no reason why you should not make it easy to read.
I suspect we think anything written in plain, simple, everyday, conversational English is not serious. It is a load of fluff, probably written by a woman who doesn’t know what to do with herself during long afternoons. “You can’t dumb it down!” is their argument. “What about medical reports? Technical papers? Manuals?”
Except highly technical stuff meant for reference, everything can be expressed in plain, clear language. Most writing can actually be fun. If manuals are supposed to be understood and followed, shouldn’t they be written in easy-to-follow words and phrases? Read the following sentence.
One can easily perceive that the propositional approach leads to a hypothesis that the surface symbolic appearance of a piece of information is not important or even consequential in a learning situation…
What does this mean?  Sure it is about learning, a serious subject.  But if it is relevant information, shouldn’t it reach a lot of students?  Won’t it be better understood if the words and phrases are simplified? For example, “see” instead of “perceive”, “necessary in a classroom” instead of “consequential in a learning situation”…
When I say “conversational” style, I mean:
[1] In the way you will speak to your friend.  The word “conversation” means you are involving the listener/reader in what you are writing. Your reader is expected to respond, as in a conversation, so he/she is going to be alert.
For example, “It is meant for the literate population in all parts of the world” is stiff and formal. Try: It’s for you, dear reader.” The simple “you” makes a whole lot of difference, right? It draws the reader to what you are saying.
Write as you would speak. But without time-buyers like “As you know (if they know, why would you say it?)”, “um”, “er”, “like” (terrible!), “you know”…
[2] Imagine you are having a face-to-face conversation with a friend. What words and phrases would you choose? Take another example:
Formal: Students generally hold the view that performance in GD is directly linked to proficiency in language.
Conversational: Students believe if they know the language they can do well in GD.
See the difference?
Here are two letters. Which one do you think will help to pacify the customer?
Dear Madam,
                      With reference to your letter dated 12-8-2001, and on the basis of the recommendation given by our Service Engineer who examined your existing washing machine (Washmac 2) I am to inform you that it has been decided to replace it with a new one under our guarantee. The inconvenience is regretted. Should there be any further problem, it may please be communicated to the undersigned. We are always at your service.
Yours faithfully,
Dear Mrs. Metha,
                            You can say goodbye to the washing machine that has been giving you trouble. We are despatching a brand new Washmac 2 today to take its place – absolutely free under our unique, no-quibble guarantee.
         We are indeed sorry the old machine gave you trouble. Please let our technicians take it away when they have installed a new one.
         Have many years of happy wash with Washmac 2.

Just make sure you make no grammatical or spelling errors when you write, ok?



  1. Good Post. The importance of conversation and translating its style to everything that we do can’t be stressed more. You can as well imagine distilling legalese with plain English.[In witness whereof the parties hereto have set forth their respective hands this 21st day of May, 2006….to be kicked out by – “signature of parties”]

    Markets are conversations and those conversations are getting smarter faster than most companies.

    No doubt, people would prefer the second type where the personality of the company leaps off the page.

    Wouldn’t you think “It’s a rare day when we get one of our customers to complain and we ask no questions. We are despatching….etc” a better first line where a savvy marketing guy ensures customer delight by deliberately avoiding the words “giving you trouble” ?

    Comment by krishna — April 3, 2007 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  2. Very well put, Krishna. Sure, there can be variations in marketing letters. I just wanted to show words like “I am to inform you that it has been decided” are too tentative to pacify an angry customer. The idea is to write a few crisp sentences to bring closure to the whole issue. Your first sentence is fine except that there is admission that you DO get complaints, though they are rare. This letter makes no such admissions.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — April 3, 2007 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  3. Geeta,

    Your draft is near perfect. In marketing, you go an extra mile to *schmooze* the customer. The mark of a good schmoozer is to get your customer to give some positive sound bytes about your company and its product (even as it sucks at times !), so that couple of others buy it. That’s how you make up for the cost of replacement you just did.

    My point was “giving you trouble” has a ring to it (the customer first got a troublesome experience – which is a near sin).

    When you say “it’s a rare day when we get one of our customers to complain” – we admit *we are fallible ( human enough !) but rarely so*(accent on quality control).

    The difference is subtle but your bottomline matters in the end 🙂

    Comment by krishna — April 4, 2007 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  4. Hi Krishna, great point! Are you in marketing? If you do, all the best in your sales pitch!:-)

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — April 4, 2007 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

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