Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Weekly writing coach: Disarming the nuclear sentence

Earlier this year, I came back from a business trip to find this note in a pretty envelope in my mail slot. Here's what it says:
Dear Neighbor--
We want to apologize for the noise last night. When we planned the evening, we expected that all performances would be acoustic. We were mistaken, and caught off guard.

Because some musicians had traveled long distances, we hesitated to cut them off.

We regret the disturbance and we will avoid situations like this in the future.
Further polling of my neighbors ("What'd I miss?") unearthed descriptions of the 3 a.m. disturbance as "electric guitar that would peel the paint off your interior walls and the enamel off your teeth," not at all typical of our neighborhood.

Now, you can pick out the nuclear sentence in that note, can't you? The author must think herself a master of understatement, but "When we planned the evening, we expected that all performances would be acoustic" has the same ring to it as a million other sentences you've heard that attempt to smooth over the thermodynamic facts.  Sentences like "We all know that Jane is the best computer technician of her type" and "I could tell when you were planning that romantic weekend that I really should tell you I was in love with Bill, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it."  Sentences that damn with faint praise or coyly share a fact you don't want to know or just plain won't like. The skunk in your verbal woodpile sentences.  They are the staples of corporate memos, emails, press statements, even speeches that deliver bad news but want to make it seem less bad. They elaborate too much, in hopes of diverting the reader's or listener's attention.

Before you pat yourself on the back for crocheting such a masterful cover for that warhead sentence, realize that the recipient will be able to see right through it to the bomb inside.  My loud neighbor packed hers in the soft padding of chronological recountings ("when we planned the evening"), aiming to signal good intent.  I can tell you that this did nothing to create good feeling, and may have annoyed the neighbors further.

Usually, you go into a writing assignment like this knowing that you need to get lipstick for that pig, but even if you haven't figured that out, let me urge you to read the finished work one more time, with an eye out for the nuclear sentence that's hiding in plain sight. Then get someone with no connection to the issue to read it.  I guarantee they'll find it even if you can't.  Replace it with something more direct, brief, clear and human. If the news really is bad, you can't make it better with more elaboration...at least, not this way.

I encourage you to share awful nuclear sentences in the comments. What have you seen that we should avoid?

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Bob Finn said...

So how would you have written that note?

eloquentwoman said...

There's actually quite a bit in it that I'd keep, Bob--the first and last sentences are sufficient, if rather brief. It's the attempt to explain that undermines the note, in my view, and didn't have what I presume was the desired effect of softening the blow. I also find it hard to picture someone planning a wee-hours concert in their home, then getting caught off guard by it...that sounded disingenous, at best. Better to leave it out.

As this was written in a water-under-the-bridge situation, there's not much that a writer can do to make the bad thing go away. In other circumstances (announcing bad news in advance), it's even more important to avoid dancing around the bad news, particularly if you're talking about deaths, layoffs, loss of livelihood.

It's an imperfect art, and I'm open to suggestions. What would you write?

Bob Finn said...

I agree that the first and last sentences are sufficient, but I'd make a small change to the first. Constructions like "We want to apologize" are a pet peeve of mine. I feel like replying, "It's nice that you want to apologize. So go ahead and apologize!"

To give your neighbor credit, he/she didn't use another common weasel word. Often folks will write, "We will try to avoid situations. . ." When they do, I feel like quoting Yoda: "Do or do not. There is no try."

I think the entire note should read, "We apologize for the noise last night. We regret the disturbance and we will avoid situations like this in the future."

eloquentwoman said...

I agree. I also wish you lived in the house down the street! Thanks for a good reminder about the non-apology apology.