Blog in 02 2013.
The British Library have just tweeted this pancake recipe from 1585. If you fancy a taste of the 16th century, here’s the same recipe made a touch more legible.
- A pint of thick cream
- Five egg yolks
- A handful of flour
- Two tablespoons of ale
How to do it
- Mix the cream, egg yolks, flour and ale in a bowl.
- Season with a handful of sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon and a pinch of ginger.
- Melt a chunk of butter (about the size of your thumb) in a frying pan.
- Ladle some of your mixture into the pan and make sure it spreads to the edges.
- Fry over a low heat until one side is baked, then flip it over and bake the other side.
People often tell us that because a particular client is very grand and important, we should use a more formal writing style for them. Not so. Our Italian writer Mariella has proof that even the Pope’s happy with a more informal approach. Scroll down for an English translation.
A me è successo di scrivere al Papa per lavoro, alcuni anni fa, e ci ho messo più tempo a pormi le domande sul come scrivere la lettera che a scriverla davvero.
Come ci si rivolge al Papa? Egregio? Gentile? Caro? Sua Santità? Ma non solo: quale è il tono di voce da usare: formale, colloquiale, naturale?
Ricordo il telegiornale di una domenica di settembre del 1999. Papa Karol Wojtyla, nell'Angelus aveva parlato a favore del computer e del suo ruolo per il progresso della società.
Era un fatto importante, davvero.
A quei tempi io lavoravo allo Smau, tra le più grandi Fiere delle tecnologie a livello europeo ed ero responsabile della comunicazione e delle relazioni pubbliche. La nostra manifestazione attirava mezzo milione di persone ogni anno e si sarebbe aperta dopo pochi giorni.
Proposi al mio Presidente di allora, di scrivere una lettera al Papa ringraziandolo per le parole spese a sostegno del nostro settore. Mi misi al lavoro per scrivere la lettera più delicata della mia vita professionale. O almeno io la vedevo così.
Primo dubbio: come si scrive al Papa? Qual'è la formula di cortesia da usare?
Non volevo sbagliare. Telefonai quindi all'ufficio stampa del Vaticano pensando di stare in attesa per un po' di tempo. Mi rispose subito una signora gentilissima che mi suggerì di scrivere al Papa in modo naturale come si scrive a una persona che si conosce. Il Papa - mi disse - amava le lettere semplici e senza orpelli.
Ci pensai su e optai comunque per la formula di cortesia: "Sua Santità". Il resto fu più facile. Quell'invito alla semplicità e alla forma diretta mi rimase impresso.
Nel giro di una settimana ricevemmo una risposta affettuosa da parte del portavoce del Papa, Joaquin Navarro Valls. Il Papa, attraverso le parole del suo bravissimo portavoce, si complimentava con noi e auspicava il successo della manifestazione. E così fu.
A few years ago, I had to write a letter to the Pope. I ended up spending more time worrying about how to write the letter than actually doing it. How to start it? Dear Sir? Dear Pope? Hello His Holiness? But not only that – what’s the right tone of voice for talking to the Pope?
It all came about after I watched the news one Sunday in 1999. I was working for the communications and public relations department of Smau, one of the largest technology fairs in Europe. Our fair attracted half a million people every year and would be opening in a couple of days. The news was about a speech Pope John Paul II had made in favour of computers and technology, and their role in advancing society. It was an important moment for people in my line of business.
So I suggested to my boss that I write a letter to the Pope to say thanks for the words he’d said in support of our industry. Then I sat down to write the most delicate letter of my professional life.
I was desperate not to make any mistakes. So I phoned the Vatican’s press office. Expecting to be on hold forever, I was pleasantly surprised when I was immediately put through to someone. I asked her my question – how should I go about writing to the Pope? And she said ‘write to the Pope like you’d write to someone you know’. According to her, the Pope preferred simple writing, without frills.
I decided to start with ‘Your Holiness’. After that, the rest was easy. The advice to be simple and direct made the whole thing really straightforward (and it impressed me a lot).
Within a week we got a lovely reply from the Pope’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls. The Pope wanted to wish us a successful event. Which it was.
We’ve been at it again. Fresh from encouraging more people to fly again with The Writer Airways™ than Virgin, we thought we’d put our linguistic hunches to the test in the banking world.
Our airline test was all about sounding human and packing personality into writing. So we thought we’d see if those same rules applied to the banks’ words; specifically, a few lines of marketing designed to nudge you into applying for a current account.
So, do people want personality in their bank’s writing? Well, no actually. When we asked people which words they associated with snippets of each bank’s writing, they said:
- Metro Bank was the most helpful (29%), useful (29%) and clear (30%)
- First Direct’s (the most distinctive, and often the linguistic envy of the banking world) was condescending (14%)
- Lloyds was boring (20%).
Pretty conclusive. Metro Bank’s writing was no great shakes; just a really straight description of their service. So is banking a totally different kettle of fish when it comes to language?
Well, trust in banks has taken a real dent in the past five years, and it looks like we’re seeing that in how people react to their writing. We want someone to make us feel like their business is stable, and that our cash is in safe hands. Helpful, clear and practical. (I’d bet that’s in some banks’ tone of voice guidelines.)
But if you’re a bank, the bad news is that won’t mark you out. And it won’t last forever. So once we’re all feeling safe and sound again, the canny ones will start putting the flair back into their writing to stand out from the steady eddies. Solidity was so 2013.
If you’d like to see what the press are saying about our research, click on these links below:
In Politics and the English Language (1945), George Orwell suggests six rules of writing. If you’re in the habit of reading blogs written by language consultancies, you’ve almost certainly seen them: ‘(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; (ii) Never use a long word when a short one will do; (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active; (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’
Much less frequently quoted is the advice that Orwell gives just a few pages earlier, while discussing what goes wrong when writers aren’t interested in the detail of what they’re saying, only in a vague ‘emotional meaning’. He says:
‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’
I’ve always preferred the list of six questions to the more finger-wagging six rules. They’re quieter but somehow more challenging, I think.
If you’ve never read Politics and the English Language in full, then a) shame on you; and b) now’s the time. Penguin have just published it in a 99p version. Buy several. Give them to friends, relatives, clients. Leave them in public places.
Word Experience is back, and we’re ready for your applications.
We’re looking for second-year undergraduates to come to our two-day Word Experience on 11th and 12th April 2013.
We’ll show you how you can make a career out of writing for business. There’ll be plenty of writing exercises, linguistic brainstorms and home-made pecha kuchas* to get your teeth into. And we might even get you working with us on a live project.
(*Google has the answer.)
Keep reading if:
You already write for your course
Maybe you study English, journalism or creative writing. Or maybe you just write a lot of essays.
You write in your spare time too
You might write for your student paper, a blog, or fiction. It doesn’t matter as long as you write.
You’re a bit of a word geek
You have a tendency to get excited or properly riled up by all kinds of writing. From tube ads to tubes of toothpaste, Booker Prize winners to Charlie Brooker.
Yes that’s me. What do I need to do?
Send us 300 words telling us why we should pick you (and a way for us to get in touch with you) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure ‘Word Experience’ and your name are in your subject line. And get it to us by 28th February 2013.