It’s a new year, and many people make resolutions to edit their lives, so to speak: exercise more, eat or drink less, get their homes in order by editing out unneeded objects.
What about editing yourself, as in your words?
A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a group email interchange (personal, not business) involving a decision to be made, which left me frustrated with the way things were going. In a final act of exasperation—and perhaps acting too truthfully—I typed “I really don’t care” as my final response. But as my finger hovered over the “Send” button, my editor’s brain kicked in and gave me pause. My reply sounded too flippant. Would I leave something like that in a client’s document, or would I tweak it for better diction and tone? I decided to revise my response to “It doesn’t matter to me,” taking the onus off of “I,” placing it on the issue (“it”), and changing the verb from one of personal emotion to impersonal import.
This exercise made me wonder just how much self-editing people really do in their daily communications and how this simple act of taking a few extra minutes may make a difference in how others receive your message. In this age of texting, tweeting, and email—producing irretrievable and uneditable content once sent—it is more important than ever to edit yourself before clicking “Send.”
Take Steve Jobs, for example. He was notorious for sending short, blunt emails, as in this response to a customer’s complaint about service for his self-inflicted water-damaged MacBook Pro:
This is what happens when your MacBook Pro sustains water damage. They are pro machines and they don’t like water. It sounds like you’re just looking for someone to get mad at other than yourself. Steve.
Sure, Steve Jobs could say whatever he wanted to, but most of us can’t afford to. If Steve had edited himself, the more polite, less accusatory alternative might look something like this:
Unfortunately our MacBook Pro, despite being a pro machine, is not waterproof or water resistant. Our service policy clearly defines the cost involved in assessing this type of damage. Steve.
A local elected official recently sent this email response to a constituent:
Because you say so does not make it so. Your assumptions and stretch are wrong. Thankfully there is due process for fairness. You display intolerance, and it is you who judges.
Whoa! How could this have been expressed differently, in order to come across less antagonistic while still expressing disagreement? Perhaps:
I appreciate your input. While I do not completely agree with your conclusions, I trust that the due process in place will result in a fair outcome for all.
In this case, the writer could have stepped back and taken account of the tone of the reply before sending. By changing the emphasis from “you” to “I” in the rewrite, the writer shifts the recipient’s perceived wrongdoing to the writer’s experience and perception of it.
So, here are a few tips to consider the next time you send off that email, text, or tweet:
If what you have just read makes your blood boil, walk away from the keyboard. That’s right—get away, and now! Give yourself a couple of hours—or even better, overnight—to think it over before replying. You will be in a much better place to write a thoughtful and less emotional response. Also, do not reply to emails or tweet late at night, when you are tired and your judgment may not be at its best.
2. Reread and Read Out Loud
Make sure you read what you have written for tone. Read it out loud, so that you can hear how it sounds to someone else. Is it unnecessarily antagonistic, or is it respectful? Will the message offend in any way? Do you get your message across clearly, or is it bogged down by emotional language? Your message should read in such a way that it would not be embarrassing to you if it were to be forwarded to others or even published for public consumption.
3. Rewrite: Change Negative to Positive/You to Me
Notice that in the original examples provided above, both writers—Steve Jobs and the official—used “you” to highlight what the recipient of the message did wrong. This will put the recipient on the offensive, and you want to avoid that. Avoid direct insults or words that imply lack of engagement. Consider inserting a conciliatory or positive phrase to begin with (e.g. “I appreciate your input”). Replace with phrasing that puts the onus on the organization (e.g., “Our service policy …”) or on your own experience of the situation (e.g., “I do not completely agree …”). Sometimes the use of some well-chosen adverbs can soften the tone as well (e.g. “unfortunately,” “usually,” “completely”).
4. Proofread and Fact Check
The best-written content is brought down by blatant errors; they distract your reader and make you look unprofessional. Check for spelling and grammar errors. Make sure that proper names are spelled correctly and that you are using the right titles for people. If you are unsure, use the tools at your disposal, such as spell check and grammar check. If you are citing dates or other facts, make sure that you verify them.
Remember, we frequently use our digital communication as a means of “conversation,” yet, unlike face-to-face conversations, tone can frequently be misconstrued in written text. Avoid unintentional consequences by taking the time and making the effort to edit your own words.
What methods do you use to ensure that your digital communication reflects both your tone and your message respectfully? Have you ever sent a message and wished you could get it back? What platforms do you find require the most effort in self-editing?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.