As a young man he had survived The Great Depression and The Second World War, and, despite coming from a relatively poor family, he had managed to acquire a good education.
By the time I got to know him, his general knowledge was truly impressive, and he had an enviable facility with numbers. But what used to delight me most was his prose style. It was spare, but not too spare. And even when he engaged in fierce pen-and-paper combat, there was always an underlying tone of good humour.
Helping his daughter to tidy up his ‘stuff’, I came across a draft of a letter to his bank manager. It was a masterpiece of grace and grumpiness. The bank manager would have been in no doubt as to where his bank had gone wrong and what it needed to do to put matters right. But I’m also sure that, on reading my friend’s letter, the bank manager would have smiled.
Another friend of mine, a man who spent most of his working life teaching English to high school students, once suggested that you can’t teach kids to write well. Each good writer learns for themselves. All of the exercises and tutorials are just opportunities to ‘develop the writing muscles that the natural writers have been given’.
Back in the early-to-mid-1980s, when PCs first started appearing on people’s desks, many arrived with bits of ‘boilerplate’, chunks of prose that could be inserted into documents of one sort or another in order to make life easier for the writers of letters and reports. Unfortunately, the people who composed the boilerplate sections often knew what to say, but they seldom knew how to say it. As a result, clunk reigned. Unfortunately, there is still a good deal of this clunk about today.
Throughout many organisations, there is a tacit belief that everyone can write. ‘Hey, if our people weren’t literate, we wouldn’t have hired them.’ But this is patently not true. Some people can write clearly, concisely, and with graceful style. Others can do little more than arrange words in some sort of order that, on a good day, hints at an attempt to communicate.
Just as every organisation needs a strategy expert and a finance expert and an IT expert, every organisation also needs a prose expert, someone who can help your organisation to communicate with your customers, your suppliers, and everyone else that you need to get onside. Find that person in your organisation. And, if you don’t have one, recruit one. And then make them the Minister of Words. You won’t regret it.