The other day I received an email reply from a client. Here is the entire message:
PHEW. I was sweating bullets over that one. . . . Story later.
I understood exactly what she meant. Here is a translation into explicit business writing:
I am relieved. I was very anxious about that situation. I will explain later.
Which version is better?
My client’s message was perfect for me. It gave me a vivid, quick picture of how she had felt. But it would not have been appropriate for an international audience.
First, readers around the globe might have been puzzled by PHEW. In all capital letters, the word looks like an acronym.
Then there’s the idiom "sweating bullets." Both sweating and bullets evoke strong images. Without knowing the idiom, readers would need to make sense of those words together. They would probably turn to a dictionary or a list of idioms to be certain of the meaning.
Even the fragment "Story later" would require thought for someone who speaks English as a second, third, or fourth language.
Which message is better? It depends on the reader.
In a Better Business Writing seminar last week, an attendee was puzzled by my suggestion that we avoid sophisticated language, figurative language, and jargon if we want to reach our readers. She was certain her writing would be boring to her readers if she omitted those elements.
And she was right. That’s because her readers are the owners of the company. As brilliant, sophisticated people whose first language is English, they would easily tire of bland prose.
For any writing rule, decide whether it applies to your message for your readers. Then choose to follow it or ignore it.
This month’s issue of my free monthly e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work, focuses on writing for readers around the globe. The lead article is "How to Write to 26,000 People–or 1." Subscribe.