Why writing how you talk is not always best

As mentioned here, we have a department meeting every Tuesday. The last one was me doing my regular presentation and my coworker presenting his findings for the English lessons the Overseas PR team have been taking. Their learning method was to watch TED talks and parrot what they heard. Parrot, because there was no effort made to actually understand the meaning or context of what was being said. They literally took turns to exactly repeat what the speaker was saying.

On the other hand, it did seem that the ‘students’ were speaking fluently and since senior management in the department don’t speak English well enough to be able to assess anyone else’s speaking ability, everyone seemed pleased with the results.

As an aside, I’m not comfortable with the reference to the other volunteer as Lex Luthor (Bezos casts himself as Superman) since I assume they are both volunteering because they can help people rather than for polishing a CV or for anecdotes of once rescuing a dog from a house fire. Though, if I have to choose between a human and an alien I’m probably going to pick the human.


The more interesting presentation was the week before from the manager of our foreign school. His presentation was a quick summary of the tips offered in a writing guide he had recently read. Any objection I raised to the tips from the book was met with the equivalent of “Well, George, have you written a book? (ME: Don’t tempt me) This random person we’ve never heard of has written a book”. The assumption is that if she wrote a book then she must be an expert.

Then I found this article about David Ogilvy‘s rules for writing.

1. Read <certain book> on writing. Read it three times.

This will depend on which book your boss or editor thinks is best. Where I work, I get to choose and I chose Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I like to recommend this book because it is shorter than the other guides we have and I know that my coworkers and the interns sometimes avoid reading English books that are too big. We have The Economist Style Guide and the AP Stylebook on hand as well.

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2. Write the way you talk. Naturally

In a perfect world where we assume everyone speaks English fluently and at a college level this rule works well. As the vast majority of the people I work with do not speak English fluently and at a college level, but read books intended for people that do, following this kind of advice means they tend to write the way David So speaks in this video.

a. Misplace the word the: This happens all the time. Not as often with a, never with an because it is never used.

b. F, L, V: These letters are pronounced as if they are P, R, and B. This means that words with these letters are sometimes written as they are pronounced: flower will be written as plower, favourite will be written as paborite. Also, a Korean shop assistant may have trouble understanding you if you do not pronounce English words in the Korean way: cho-ko-ri-tuh kay-i-kuh, not cho-co-la-te ca-ke. My bigger problem is when I use Korean pronunciation in Sydney.

c. Too many syllables: Each letter of hangul corresponds to a certain sound, so when English words are written in Korean each English syllable needs to be translated to the right Korean sound. Now, if the writer does not know the spelling of the word in English but needs to translate it from Korean, it will be transliterated the way it sounds in Korean, often making it unrecognisable in English.

d. -ing everywhere: The materials I usually receive have been written in Korean and then translated into English, sometimes by the same writer but often by others (usually by the lowest ranking member of the team). The Korean text is usually one paragraph (4 to 5 lines) written as one sentence. To achieve the same effect in English, the writer typically puts -ing where a full stop (translation: period) would be better. This writing style does not work in English.

e. Extra syllable at the end of words: This ties in with Too many syllables. When I teach English I’ve noticed my students will not pronounce the letter s if it is the last letter of a word unless the word is a plural noun (if they know the word is a plural noun). They will nearly always pronounce the e separately if it is the last letter; edge becomes ed-gee.

f. Exclamations: You’d be surprised how often extra exclamation marks are used in text. The general rule is that one is enough, and even using one might not be necessary.

3. Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs

Yes, please. But as I mentioned above, when the text is translated from Korean it is usually translated as a one-sentence paragraph. With short words….

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attidutinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

While not guilty of these attrocities, I do tend to see words used inappropriately. The word we most often misuse is globalization. We think it only means to sell stuff overseas. There is also a predisposition (heh) in Korea to favour longer words over shorter ones. It’s usually a way to show off the writer’s TOEIC passing ability.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject

We had a series of presentations about report writing. My coworkers were tasked with reading different books all with the theme of writing reports no longer than one page. Of course, since this is a race to the bottom there was also a book about writing reports no longer than one paragraph.

6. Check your quotations

When we receive news reports from the business divisions they are usually in Korean press release format. We translate them into English then rewrite them as an English press release. The Korean press releases and news stories rarely have a quote. If they do, it’s attributed to ‘a spokesman’. The exception is when it is the CEO or the heads of the Shipbuilding or Offshore divisions. In those cases, I have to fight hard to change the literal translation to something more natural in English.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning – and then edit it.

My Year 3 teacher told me to do this. If you read something aloud and it sounds wrong, then it probably is wrong. The same works for when you are spelling a word: if it looks wrong, then it probably is. In my work, I can usually tell if someone hasn’t read their work before sending it to our department. Telltale signs are: the same word spelt differently each time; the company name spelt incorrectly; the red and green squiggles still visible.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

For documents from executives, the owner’s former secretary and I collaborate on the translations and writing. For my own work, I used to ask a coworker to read and suggest improvements, but….

9. Before you send your letter or memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

Asking your colleague to improve your writing also helps here. That is, unless your purpose is to mislead the recipient.

10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

In the office, I prefer to talk rather than use the office communicator. When I walk over to the guy (or gal), it sometimes comes across as confrontational. Of course, my coworkers often summon me to their desk and if they ask me a question that is easier answered in person than in text, then I walk over.

While these rules may be well and good, methinks trying to transplant them as is to Korea without taking into account the underlying factors in Korea is a misstep. The major hindrance is a reluctance to do things any other way but ‘by the book’. Doing otherwise means using one’s own judgement and for whatever reason this seems to be avoided at all costs (for lack of confidence in one’s English ability, not wanting to take responsibilty, etc). And as with all of these ‘rules for writing’ I like to keep George Orwell’s ones in mind, especially the sixth

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

What do you think? What are your ‘rules for writing’?

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