An Email On The English Language

Story of the Week Sep 13, 2020 2 min read

📚 Story of the Week #16

Working remotely has created a subtle shift in power. Before, those that shouted the loudest shaped the agenda.

Now it's those that write the clearest, and this will only become more true with time.

Writing well is the art of copying an idea from your brain to someone else’s.

Take this sentence someone once wrote to me: ‘I want to effectuate a victorious blitzkrieg against the imperilment of diseases’.

After some consideration, my brain translated it to, ‘I want to contribute to curing disease’.

Messages like this chime my inbox, and when they do I know that UK university application season has started again. Those of you familiar with the process will remember the personal statement, that one-page love letter you had to write to explain to universities why you’re worthy of their instruction. Navigating students through the fog of writing their statements has been part of life since 2011, and through the thousands of sentences I’ve reviewed, rephrased, and reworked, some principles have emerged.

One of these principles is that George Orwell was right. He outlined a number of writing rules, which I trust can serve as a North Star for you, as much as they have for me.

As how the North Star is only helpful in the northern hemisphere, these rules don’t apply to literary writing, but to when you’re writing messages, emails, or manifestos.

  1. Never use a long word where a short one will do: see the ‘victorious blitzkrieg’ example above.
  2. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print: using these makes your writing stale. A pet peeve of mine is the phrase, ‘At the end of the day’.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out: It's really quite funny how very many needless words one can use in order to make a point. Especially at 4am in the morning.
  4. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent: think ‘rendezvous’ (meeting point); ‘status quo’ (situation) or ‘utilise’ (use)
  5. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous: the rules are meant to be healthy constraints to support writing clearly, so if they ever compromise this goal, ditch them.

Next are some more tactical ones you can use at work. These rules shape how we sent emails at Airbnb:

  1. Avoid acronyms as they exclude newcomers, but if you must, explain it the first time it appears: “The client has signed the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)”.
  2. Avoid fluffy phrases: “Would help the solution”, “Should result in benefits”, “Significantly better”.
  3. Use data, not adjectives to shape decision-making: “We can increase revenue a lot” can be changed to “We’ve estimated a revenue increase of 2.5%.”
  4. Some taboo phrases: “Due to the fact that” = “because”; and “bi-weekly” should be banned. Either say “twice a week”, “Once every two weeks”, or the neat British word “fortnightly”.

🍋Helping schools during COVID-19
In the spirit of personal statement writing, my team and I are giving away a free personal statement course to help schools overcome some of the headwinds caused by COVID-19.

If you know of any schools or students that would appreciate video walkthroughs and templates to go from blank page to final draft, feel free to share this website with them.

My personal favourite review has been, “It's so beautiful it doesn’t even feel like learning. Thank you so much".

Stay curious,

Jamie

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Jamie Miles

🌱 Building a media company to make sense of the 21st century 🍎 Sharing the best ideas along the way 🍵 Former @Airbnb @Onfido @UniofOxford

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