Written words are indelible

LindaBy this time, you know about the fiasco of The New Yorker’s cover image. The attempt by the editors of the New Yorker to joke about Sen. Obama’s religious preferences and ethnic origins backfired. New YorkerEditor David Remmick said in a statement, “Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover.”

Unfortunately, when you have to explain a joke, the joke loses its humor. That’s what happened here.

The cover, though, teaches an important lesson: Be careful what you publish, because your words become indelible.

You say you don’t publish? Do you send e-mail? Then you publish, albeit on a small scale. 

I use e-mail all the time. As an editor, I use e-mail as my primary means of communication with writers. E-mail expedites the business of writing and editing.

As you write your next e-mail, I’d like to caution you not to make four mistakes I see quite often:

  • Using caps and big fonts, and
  • Misspelling and writing in fragments.

I communicate by e-mail with a top executive in a large company. He is a kind and gentle man, and his messages to me have always been kind and gentle. The messages — not the way in which he conveys his messages. He always writes in capital letters and he always uses a very large font (14 or 16 points).

I suspect he writes in caps because he is a poor typist. As a hunt-and-peck person, it is easier for him to keep the cap lock on than to use the shift key. And I think he writes in large fonts because he can read what he is typing without putting on his reading glasses.

Unfortunately, his e-mails always look like they are shouting. That’s what caps and big letters do. They shout.

Shouting e-mails make a not-so-nice impression on the recipient. But e-mails that are written in fragmented sentences and with misspellings make an even worse impression.

Another executive writes missives that have no verbs! Words are misspelled, and nothing is capitalized. This executive is a well-schooled individual, but his e-mails suggest he failed sixth-grade spelling.

What’s so bad about these types of e-mails? Back in the days when people wrote letters, they rarely shared the content of personal letters with others. But e-mails are different. Recipients respond; they forward the message to other recipients. The result is that you never know who might read your original e-mail. So, you never know who is getting a first impression of you.

New Yorker Editor David Remmick’s choice of cover caused quite a controversy, but at least he had an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind his cover decision. The cover, though, is published for posterity. When you send an e-mail you probably won’t have an opportunity to explain yourself. Worse, you may not even know if an explanation is necessary. But your words will be indelible.

Writing is a useful, efficient, and effective way to communicate. If your typing skills are almost non-existent, consider taking an online class — or invest in dictation software. Before you send that e-mail, make sure your cap lock is set to off. And, finally, do a spell check.

Until next time,

Linda Segall
Segall Enterprises: Writing and Editing Solutions

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