Tales from school
We can all remember those essay topics from our school days. “What I did on my summer holidays”, “Who is your hero?”, or “Discuss whether Jamie Oliver’s new school dinners are a good idea”. If we’re honest, we have never needed or written such texts again in later life. Really, have any of us tried to write a creative text in recent years? Not very likely. Who has ever authored a “dialectical essay” after graduating from school? This writing form with its strict arguments and counterarguments is a Greek invention, at any rate.
When we want to discuss an issue today, we tend to do so in a freer, more natural form. Admittedly, almost of us have written reports at some point, but a project report has very little to do with the best holiday experience of our lives. However, if we look at essay assignments in more recent times, we find an array of topics and instructions such as the following:
Your gym teacher gave you a bad grade in a fitness test, even though you had told him your back was sore before the lesson. Write him a letter asking him not to count the grade in your overall marks. Provide reasons for why you feel you were treated unfairly.
As you can see, writing tasks assigned these days are meant to teach young people to carefully consider their target person or group and the aim of their writing. This makes a lot of sense, because a postcard to your godmother should look completely different from a letter to your teacher.
Writing for the right target group and aim
What applies to young people in terms of what they learn and practice when writing naturally applies even more in adult life. The process can be summed up with a simple diagram:
Finding precise answers for these questions will provide greater clarity during the writing process.
An example: You took notes during a meeting. Is a text now required that provides the participants with short reminders about what the meeting covered or is an accurate account of the meeting’s content necessary? If the text is supposed to document the entire meeting, rough notes will not be enough and a protocol is needed. Who are the recipients? In other words, who is on the e-mail list? The answer to this question will determine whether you need a results-based or progress report. You may even have to write two different protocols because some people might think they have better things to do than read ten-page progress reports.
When it comes to translations, the focus should also be placed on the questions listed above because a translated text has to achieve its goals and reach its intended target group in whichever foreign language it is written. In this case, a very literal translation would be counterproductive since you want to reach your goals and your recipients in their language.
An example: blog posts and forums in the USA always feature colloquial expressions, even if the text’s intended goal is to provide fact-based instructional content, and the recipients are experts. When readers are presented with an unpopular fact, you will find an “OMG!” right in the middle of the text. When translating into German, for example, we would probably give this expression a linguistic facelift and use a phrase equivalent to “we are a little shocked” or “this astonishes us” in the translation, because a local professional audience could feel rebuffed by an “Oh mein Gott!”.
So far, so good – so good, so far
Ideally, that would be all there is to say on the subject. Ideally, however, this type of focused writing wouldn’t fail as often as it does. That’s why we want to address the question of why so many attempts to write for a specific target group do not succeed.
1. The wrong target
A friend of mine once asked his boss in writing to include him in a specific e-mail list. We all know how the system works, don’t we? Accessing information is a decisive success factor for professionals today. His boss wrote back to say that she would add him to the e-mail list “if it was absolutely necessary”. My friend was disappointed. Bitterly disappointed. When we got together that evening and analysed what had happened, it turned out that my friend was bothered by the “if absolutely necessary” part, because he had been looking for an “I’d be more than happy to include you”. I had to smile – it was a classic case. His aim in writing was not to be included in the e-mail list, but rather to receive recognition. He wanted praise, appreciation, attention. The e-mail list was just a pretence. And I suspect that a text type designed to win you appreciation is still waiting to be invented… The most important thing to do before starting to write is to stop and ask yourself what your real goal is and then adapt your style accordingly. Furthermore, you should also consider whether this goal can even be achieved with a written text. Is your goal that your neighbour (clear target group) no longer parks his car in your driveway? If so, then the “formal complaint letter” text type fits, and the style needs to be factual and relevant. However, if your goal is to give your neighbour a real piece of your mind because the parking issue is merely the infamous straw that broke the camel’s back, then the style will be completely different. Mind you, you should probably think long and hard before actually sending the letter.
2. The recipient’s role
We’ve all seen those film scenes in which someone strikes an exaggerated pose and shouts “Have you forgotten who you are talking to?” A bewildering question indeed, because nobody can forget who they are talking to during a face-to-face conversation. Of course, the pose-striking individual actually means something completely different, namely that the person opposite has forgotten the roles which each of them occupy, such as pupil-teacher, customer-salesperson, or employee-supervisor.
So, when you ask yourself who your recipient is, you have to not only consider the person, but also their role. Am I writing to a friend? Am I writing to my supervisor? Or a customer? It’s not always easy, because often the hierarchies get mixed up, and your boss may also be your golfing buddy, or conversely a friendship has developed into a customer relationship.
We have to be very careful in such a case. The recipient question cannot be answered without a precise analysis of the different roles involved. It could also be advisable not to try to cram all of the issues you want to address into a single text. For example, thanking Jessica for the terrific party (role: friend) and then diving right in to picking apart her offer (role: business partner) can end badly. A better suggestion would be to send a thank-you SMS or WhatsApp to your friend Jessica and then to respond to your business partner Jessica’s offer in a formal letter.
3. The luxury of re-reading things
We all made some pretty glaring mistakes in those insufferable essays mentioned above. Mistakes that we would have certainly caught after letting the text sit for a while before reading it over again, but when the bell rang, we had to hand it in and that was that. At SwissGlobal, we always have all of our texts proofread by a second language professional, because at some point you become “blind” to your own mistakes and four eyes are able to spot more than two.
However, one thing that is often overlooked is asking the proofreader the two questions described above:
Is this text appropriate for the target group?
Will I achieve my goal with this text?
For proofreading, I would attach just as much importance to a clear “yes” to these two questions as to finding a superfluous comma or an extra space.
Conclusion and a reading tip
So, don’t forget to take your time when writing. But even more importantly, set aside time to prepare and think carefully about who you are writing to and what role that person plays. And finally, here’s a reading tip for you: Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life. A genius in more ways than one, this brilliant composer knew how to hone in on his target audience and goal and to adapt his style in such a way that you can hardly believe that his letters were all written by the same person. An absolutely delightful read! And just so you know, the creative mind behind the “Magic Flute” never had to write holiday-themed essays – because he never attended a regular school.