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Dear John Doe: A Sad Lesson

I was saddened to read about the U.S. Army's error in sending 7,000 letters addressed to "Dear John Doe" to family members of soldiers who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times wrote the story published on January 8.

According to The New York Times, the Army learned about the error when people who had received the letter, which included information about groups that help families of deceased soldiers, phoned and expressed their thanks for the information but mentioned that their letter was addressed incorrectly.

What an unfortunate mistake! "John Doe" is the name frequently used for an unidentified dead man, and it communicates anonymity and isolation in death. For a living family member to be addressed as "John Doe"–especially after having experienced the death of a loved one–is . . . it's about as bad as it gets in writing blunders.

I express my condolences to the families of these soldiers, and I regret any additional suffering the John Doe letters may have caused.

It is not necessary to condemn the U.S. Army for the egregious writing error. No doubt there is plenty of self-condemnation, blame, and shame flying around.

But all of us can learn from the error, and here is the lesson: Never send out a mail-merged letter without checking many examples to be sure addresses and greetings have been merged correctly.

When I send mailings to a group, I insist that virtually every letter be checked for an accurate greeting, address, and letter-envelope match. Although my caution may seem excessive, I have never had to apologize for a mass mailing gone wrong–and I know several people who have.

Let's learn from the Army's painful lesson.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

3 comments on “Dear John Doe: A Sad Lesson”

  • The letter may have been proofread several times. It’s that last step that went wrong–the step in which someone should have checked that the mail merge hadn’t gone awry.

    Thanks for commenting, Iain. I look forward to seeing what you do on your blog.

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