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26 July 2010

On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the generosity of this letter?

I used to get lots of personal letters — and I used to write lots as well. Sadly, because of email entering our world, it’s pretty rare now that a real letter drops through my box.

So when I’m talking about writing letters, I find myself thinking about words and expressions in a different way. What you get on paper looks different from what you get on screen.

I’m not sure if that’s why I get to see so many customer- service letters that don’t look like customer service at all. I’m talking about the so-called standard letters — written as a one-size-fits-all. These often have such a bureaucratic, mass-produced effect that I sometimes wonder if they were produced as a joke.

Letter writers should consider being generous
I learned something about writing letters at a forum I attended recently. The presenter suggested that writers should be generous to their readers — and that they could rate that generosity on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ungenerous and 10 being very generous.

I decided I’d try out this tip at my next training session. My participants were from a customer service area and their job was to write to people who had failed to fill in a questionnaire, even when they had received repeated written requests. The writers in my class didn’t like the standard letter that had been generated to cover such situations, and they wanted to come up with a new one.

So for a couple of hours we changed, rearranged, and added to the content. One person suggested that perhaps the recipient of the questionnaire hadn’t understood the instructions for filling it in. Another added that perhaps the recipient didn’t give as much importance to answering the questionnaire as the sender did. And someone else said that the recipient was being asked to go out of their way to answer the questionnaire, and that the letter we rewrote should reflect that.

Writers felt good and so would readers
Participants were thrilled with the rewritten letter. Compared with the original, it was almost unrecognisable. It was comprehensive and considerate. The writer, and the organisation behind the writer, came across as not only thoughtful, but human.

I found myself asking the question ‘On a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 is not generous and 10 is very generous, how would you rate this letter?’

Participants unanimously gave our new version a 9 or a 10. And I wondered if our teaching of plain English — in customer- service letters and in all sorts of other documents — could go one step further in thinking about the reader’s needs.

We could encourage our writers to be not just courteous to readers but to go one step further and be generous to their readers.


  1. I love this idea, Margaret.

    Considering our audience - who they are and what we want them to do - is standard good writing practice.

    Showing consideration to our readers, as (I think) Lynda said several posts ago, is good manners.

    But showing generosity to our readers... That's magic!

  2. And right on time comes Joe Bennett's reaction to a letter that didn't follow your suggestion, Margaret!