A question of style

The art of crafting a letter is in decline as digital transmission of the written word becomes faster and easier. David Bernstein bemoans the concomitant loss of wit and grammatical skills

What I’m about to write risks revealing my age, but here goes. I enjoy reading a well-written letter. I take it as a compliment that the sender has taken trouble. I am heartened if the writer displays more than a passing respect for grammar. ’Grammar is thinking,’ said Iris Murdoch. Sloppy language is evidence of sloppy thinking.

When a sales letter begins, ’As a valued customer, I want to let you know…’ I cease reading and start to shout. ’You are not a valued customer. I am. I don’t care if you’ve never learned that a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the subject. All it takes is common sense to realise that what you have written makes little if any sense.’

Playwright, humorist and journalist Keith Waterhouse railed against bad writing, classifying it as part of a ’general corrosion of the quality of life with vandalism, litter and graffiti’. That was a decade ago in a book, English, our English. The situation is hardly better today, worse perhaps. Texting, tweeting, ready access to prepared exam answers and sample curriculum vitae are, if not leading young people astray, hardly encouraging them to attempt the labour (and discover the joys) of composition.

Good writing has a practical benefit. As Waterhouse pointed out, employers ’equating competence in simple English composition with intelligence… especially look for literacy in job applications… the applicant who can compose a well-written letter has a more organised mind than the one who can’t – a useful work skill’. Well worth noting if you happen to be one of the 70 applicants allegedly competing for every
The letter, especially if it is addressed to a communications company, is a part of the applicant’s portfolio, a demonstration of a talent in action. But a sense of order is relevant beyond the creative arena. Clear communication is a vital component in most spheres of commercial activity. Administrative posts need to be filled by organised minds and within communication companies it applies equally to writers and designers.

Victor Papanek defined design as ’the conscious effort to impose meaningful order’. Buckminster Fuller chose to define it by seeking its antonym – ’the opposite of design is chaos’. A creative director colleague, Paul Eastwood, said that good graphic design ’eases the conveying of information’. So does a well-written letter. It also tells the recipient that the sender knows the fundamental rule of communication – before you start, put yourself in the place of the person being addressed.

And if there is some extra delight in the text – in its phrasing perhaps, or an apposite figure of speech – so much the better. A letter is not a version of a checklist or multi-choice questionnaire. It is a means by which an applicant can present their credentials and convey, discreetly, their personality, their style. As the French naturalist Comte de Buffon said in a pre-PC age, ’style is the man himself’.

My mates at Pentagram were keen to go beyond the brief, as it were. ’Solving the problem isn’t the problem’, said Alan Fletcher. ’The problem is adding value.’ One of those values for Alan was wit. Kenneth Grange would try to add pleasure.

A design curator once asked Charles Eames, ’Do you design for pleasure or for function?’ Eames replied, ’Whoever said pleasure wasn’t functional?’ The enjoyment in reading a well-crafted letter of application is functional indeed.

David Bernstein was founder of The Creative Business and is a creative consultant

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