In the mailbox was an envelope from a a well-known Swiss company. Including a cover letter and a nicely designed booklet.
The letter would have ended up unread in the trash can; but because it makes a particularly good bad example, it is now making a career in our blog.
I take it apart to give you Line for line to prove where its weaknesses lie; so that you can beware of making the same mistakes in the future.
And then I demonstrate how such a letter should sound, so that it is also read.
I would be happy to send you the article as a formatted PDF file "Letters for the trash can". Just click and enter email.
To get started, please read the (anonymized, but largely unchanged) letter. I have changed the company name, industry and logo and replaced two telltale words in the text – so that no one will feel shown up. And then I put some numbers in it, so you know what my comments refer to. But the text is 99% unchanged:
It is amazing that the letter is still readable, although it has been put into a completely different context. Therein also lies its greatest weakness: it strings together loud generalities that fit a little bit everywhere and crack nowhere really.
Good texts bring an original thought precisely to the point. This letter lacks both: an original thought and the skilful pointedness, which whets our appetite to read the magazine.
As it is, the letter does more harm than good.
His most important task would probably have been to the reading of the magazine to animate. A booklet that was printed on art paper in 4 colors throughout and cost the sender a lot of money.
The letter has totally failed in its mission. Those who skim it also expect only platitudes from the magazine and throw it to the waste paper unread.
If the booklet had come without a cover letter, it would have had a chance: I would have had to leaf through it to get an idea of what it was like. With letter I guess even without browsing: all just advertising.
We remember, anyway: The most important ingredient of a letter worth reading is interesting content. But this text does not have them. Take a look for yourself: Apart from general change gobbledygook and Heraklit’s approximate age, we learn nothing.
The 9 transgressions
I have numbered the sin register of this text with orange numbers. Let’s go through them line by line:
- The Subject line is a missed opportunity. We learn nothing new. As soon as I opened the envelope, it was clear: Aha, a letter and a magazine.
The subject line should not state the obvious. It should arouse curiosity. By hinting at something interesting that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. It could refer to a competition in the magazine, mention an article from the magazine or offer a test drive. Whatever. Just not the obvious.
- A Quote at the beginning is mostly embarrassing. Read the beginning again and listen to yourself: does this opening touch you?? I found it to be an embarrassment. 50 years ago one would have concluded from such a quotation the education of the author. Today everyone knows that with Google you can find 100 snappy sayings in 3 seconds.
And if it absolutely has to be a quote (it never has to), at least put it in an original context or add an offbeat detail that not everyone knows yet. For example, that Heraclitus in old age wanted to cure his dropsy with cow dung. But how you get from there to the magazine, I don’t know either. You see: Without quotation is better.
- The phrase "is still valid today" is nominal style – the writing style of the busybody. Why not "valid until today? Why explain the obvious at all? A quote that no longer applies today has no place in your text.
- The next nominalization follows (subject to continuous change). That is again badly written and beside the point. For change is feared precisely because it is not continuous, not steady, not predictable. Change stresses us, because it comes abruptly, surprisingly, all at once; it makes you dizzy and you forget where the front and back are. But no one has thought that hard; especially since the next platitude is already pushing its way onto the stage.
- Our business can also adapt to change "do not elude". Where would we get then? First taking such a long run-up, with Heraclitus and all, and then not participating in the change at all. No, that really doesn’t work.
"Everything is changing and we’re in the middle of it." This is how the content of the first paragraph could have been coherently brought to the point. With 7 words instead of 33.
- The subject, we remember, already contained nothing new. And because it worked so well above, here it comes again. The obvious already again redoubled.
- Then something pointed out. This could be interesting. Are we perhaps being served a foretaste of what awaits us in the booklet??
Unfortunately no. Again only generalities. The company takes advantage of the changed environment to become even better for me. Extra for me. But what this environment looks like and what is done for my benefit – that remains murky.
As sinister, perhaps, as Heraclitus, whom his contemporaries called the "Dark One" because his teachings were so enigmatic.
- Very few people read this far. And those who have persevered now want nothing more find out.
It doesn’t help that an exclamation mark is nailed to the tail of the appeal either. A footsore sentence doesn’t run any faster with exclamation marks either. Where you need an exclamation mark, you really need a strong sentence. He no longer needs an exclamation mark. We remember: For a sentence that needs an exclamation mark, any help comes too late.
- Another embarrassing sentence to finish. Too bad.
The good of the bad
So much for the analysis of the letter. As a bad example, it’s wonderful because it’s so inconspicuous at first glance. It has no spelling or grammatical errors, and it’s formally up to snuff, too. But it has no message, takes no position, involves us in no adventure.
It consists of nominalizations, a hackneyed quote and diffuse talk about change. Only those who read the text carefully realize that it is without content.
Then, you might say, it’s not all that bad.
Good texts seek the precious: the undivided attention of the reader.
How should a text fulfill this task, if it has no content? And even if he is noticed – why doesn’t he use the attention to place a message?
How can this happen?
This mailing from a publicly traded corporation must have cost a small fortune. In addition to the direct expenses for printing and mailing, there are the salaries and offices of a handful of employees who are exclusively engaged in the production of such magazines. How can it be that something like this happens to these (capable) people??
The autopilot is probably to blame. Reading and writing are not puzzles that make us frown and demand silence. We can write an inconspicuous text without thinking. And we can read it through half asleep without noticing its emptiness. So Mechanically, how we sometimes drive and then wonder how we got home.
Marketing departments are no exception. And their bosses don’t get the idea that only what catches their attention is good enough for the customers. Pale contents even spare the nerves. A striking position would have to be defended. But the noncommittal gibberish remains below the attention threshold of those who would have something to say.
Don’t even try to patch up such a text before you hear Some interesting content have worried. You have to bring food to a starving man. This is the only therapy. And you have to fill the emptiness of this text with interesting thoughts. This is the only therapy.
Since there is nothing interesting in the letter, I had to come up with something appropriate. So I assumed the new development mentioned was a Safety system for cars, that links lane control, distance warning, cruise control, GPS and hi-fi system together. The system warns when drowsy drivers drift out of their lane, brakes when they get too close, and marks the speed limit with an audible signal. According to a British study, Securo could prevent thousands of accidents and save dozens of lives every year.
That’s something. With these facts, we turn the meaningless phrase graveyard into an exciting text.
If you now expect a text that still resembles the original, you will be disappointed. The empty sentences had to go and after that there was nothing left:
- The Subject line sums up what Securo is all about.
The subject line has to sit. It will be read directly after the address. A weak subject line turns your letter into waste paper.
- In many letters, it would say "employees" or "co-workers" or "employees".
My sense of style resists these forms. The linguistic equality is an honorable demand. But it creates stylistic foreign bodies. Nobody talks like that. Not on the street, not in pop lyrics, not in books, not in movies. As long as this is so, the gender-neutral forms weaken your texts. You sound a bit strained, ideologically uptight and bureaucratic. I immediately subscribe to the motives of linguistic equality. But if you want a text with maximum impact, you have to look people in the mouth.
- A play on words makes vividly, what it is about. It’s not completely without risk, because there are also many bad passengers. I also thought of "guardian angel," but "passenger" sounded more tangible and reliable to my ears.
- Here and there A concrete number – that makes your statements credible. I could have also written: "Many of our customers never drive again without a." But some readers distrust such fuzzy sentences. Because they had to experience that "friendly customer service" really means "Hungarian call center" and "convenient location" means "directly on the highway". Therefore, you should focus on facts if you want to sell your story. The reader then thinks: Whoever says "93%" must have evidence that I could verify. A lie would blow up and the PKW AG will not take this risk.
Besides: Between many words is a number written in digits typographically striking. And because numbers often provide interesting information, they are highly regarded.
- A delightfully dry conclusion. Very few letters end so abruptly after a strong statement.
9 out of 10 writers would append something. For example: "We wish you an exciting read."Because readers are used to closing phrases, builds up their lack of tension. And suspense increases the chance that the magazine will be read.
- A car-related greeting fits to this sender.
The original bore two signatures. This letter only one. Two signatures force impersonal language. They go with legally binding documents.
Here is a signature better. The sender can Show personality and create closeness to the recipient. It also fits that she shows off her first name. The signature is also shorter. That the letter comes from PKW AG is clear from the letterhead.
You too can write in such a way that your mail is read. Stylistic finesse is not important at all. What matters is that you have something to say and show personality. Then I will gladly take the time to write your text.
For proof: When my daughter Julia was born, we received many congratulatory letters. But the only one that has remained in my memory to this day came from 6-year-old Aline. It was not even addressed to the parents, but to the big sisters of the newly born Julia. Still, it warmed our hearts like no other letter:
You also liked this. Get it right?
Because the letter is genuine, because we believe Aline’s joy and because she didn’t fob us off with platitudes. And because it’s simply heartfelt. Naturally.
You still have to make sure you spell correctly and avoid golden hearts. But you may dare, Your own O-Tone to strike a chord in your correspondence. A tone that shows your personality. This is much more important than stylistic quibbles in word choice and sentence structure. Old master Wolf Schneider recommends: "Write like you speak. Only more carefully."
In spoken language, sentences sometimes remain unfinished or are restarted three times. Endings are swallowed and grammatical errors go unnoticed in the flow of speech. But in written texts they would interfere. This is what is meant by "Only more carefully". That you make what you would say fit to print. A good sentence is one that you could also say. And a sentence that no one would bring over the lips, also does not belong in your letters.
Course spelling, punctuation, grammar
We also have a course in correct writing. Over two days, the fabulous proofreader and lecturer Erika Reist will teach you the most important rules about spelling and grammar. The rules you know from years of proofreading work the vast majority of mistakes provoke.
After that, you will have to practice; but such a course is a brilliant start to finally leave embarrassing mistakes behind.
And now write a letter, which I enjoy reading almost as much as the one from Aline. Only your topic is a bit more brittle. But you are already big.
To get your creativity going, let "Securo" stand for something different this time. Let’s imagine Securo is a rescue system for seniors. It consists of motion detectors and a small wristband transmitter. The system learns the rhythm of a person’s life and knows the characteristics of dangerous situations. If no one is having breakfast in the kitchen at the usual hour or someone is lying motionless after a fall, the wristband flashes, vibrates and beeps. A push of a button on the wristband transmitter means: All is well. I do not need help. If the button is not pressed, relatives are notified.
You are also welcome to come up with another product or to invent further details. The important thing is to have something concrete in mind and to show off this product in your letter.
If you like, write your draft as a comment under this article. Then everyone has something to gain.
I would be happy to send you the article as a formatted PDF "Letters for the trash can". Just click and enter your email.
And here is the list of all articles about good writing style
Half the truth: Platitudes harm your texts [People can write without thinking – and do so. The result is cliche-laden, run-of-the-mill text.]
Storytelling and giving speeches: Recipes You Didn’t Know Yet [Storytelling is the magic ingredient for good writing. And when giving speeches, telling appropriate stories is the secret weapon of professionals.]
How to write exciting science texts and engage your audience [Science texts don’t have to be boring. If they make us wonder, they are so exciting that we can’t put them aside anymore.]
How to write irresistible (Product) Texts write [Those who write product texts like to put on rose-colored glasses and revel in positivity. But: Such texts sell badly. Good product texts need a dash of Tabasco.]
The Passive: misunderstood, mistreated, scorned [The passive has an image problem. But it’s innocently fallen into disrepute. Why it is better than its reputation, read here.]
Raymond Chandler’s cat: the text lives on the detail [3 smart tips for better texts from the letters of Raymond Chandler – with the help of his cat "Tiki".]
Shoulder view: Revise text (The passive . ) [Here you can look over my shoulder and read my mind as I put the finishing touches on a text for publication on our website.]
"The hill we climb" in German – translates from DeepL, Google and Microsoft [Can online translation services also translate poetry? Yes, they can. Not perfect, but usable. Above all DeepL.]
Understandable technical texts writing: How your readers like it [Especially for engineers, microbiologists, doctors, software developers, financial planners, tax consultants and sociologists: How to put your knowledge on paper in an understandable way.]
The praise of verbs: 16 good reasons to be Verbs to love [The vividness of your writing resides in the land of verbs as they describe the cleaver crashing on the logs, a kitten licking its paws, or the heart igniting for an idea.]
What you can learn from Mark Twain about Adjectives can learn [Few people know this: Adjectives are text aggravators. Most should be eliminated without replacement; then the rest are a plus.]
Konkret and pictorial writing – this is how to do it [How to turn alphabet soup into great mental cinema: If you take your readers along on your journey instead of just reporting on it.]
Applications, that inspire: How to get into the job interview [The young high-flyers are in demand everywhere. But character heads with life experience are often sorted out early on. We do not allow that.]
The red thread: Recipes [Where the thread is missing, reading is a slog. Those who know a lot often have the most trouble. We guide you through difficult terrain.]
The apt word: Repair manual for lame texts [Good texts need racy words with radiance and flavor. How to find them (and distinguish them from the lame loser words) is explained in this article.]
Texts, that ignite: How the impossible becomes possible [Smart, well-intentioned, helpful: It’s not enough. For a text to sparkle, every detail must be right. Here it is explained.]
Here’s how exciting8 tips from author Peter Honer [Crime writer Peter Honer explains the 8 methods to create suspense and keep it blazing until the climax.]
Letters for the trash can: Do it better [What distinguishes a successful advertising letter from helpless advertising?? We explain it with a real example.]
This is how you write today: the important little things for your Correspondence [Contemporary letter style runs differently than 20 years ago. We explain the modern standard.]
Vivid Writing – 8 tips for head cinema and captivating stories [Asta Nielsen was the most famous diva of silent movies. She had no words. The power of images had to suffice. From her you can learn surprisingly much for exciting texts.]
The Christmas misery – baking instructions for worth reading Christmas cards [If you ever want to write a Christmas card (or birthday or congratulations card) that really goes to the heart, read these tips.]
What to do about Writing blocks? [When the writing stops, you have to stop moping first and foremost. Then it goes again sometime. And in the meantime (to enliven their creative wells) do Barbara Lukesch’s exercise on checkered writing.]
besides: If you’re looking for errors in spelling and grammar, here’s the same overview on the subject of the "Correct texts". And here is our overview with all articles about Online Marketing.