I’ve just finished reading Simon Garfield’s excellent book, ‘To the Letter’.
One of my favourite letter lessons comes from the Alice-In-Wonderland weirdo Lewis Carroll. Carroll, obviously, was a bit different from the crowd. Were he alive today, he’d have said all sorts of crazy things on social media, I’m sure.
But he also had a rule-of-thumb whenever he mailed a letter:
If you have written anything that may offend, put the letter aside for a day and then read it as if you were a recipient. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead. – Lewis Carroll
I’ve found this is a good policy with copy too.
Especially blogs and emails.
Something you wrote yesterday in an emotional frenzy often looks embarrassing once you’re reading it with fresh eyes. This is one of the main reasons Twitter gets so many celebrities into trouble. It allows an instant stream of communication from the user’s brain to the outside world.
There’s nothing in-between to say: “Whoa, hold up, Roseanne Barr, that’s a little racist.”
On the other hand, you do need a little heat and emotion in your writing. Strong ideas are, by nature, offensive. They run into conflict with other peoples’ world views.
Truth is, if you’re offending nobody then you’re probably boring everybody.
You have to sit somewhere in the middle.
I’ve never minded offending anyone, so long as it’s my true opinion. The only times I’ve ever felt ashamed are when I’ve ran my mouth off (thankfully, not very often), and said something I don’t really believe.
I remember a long time ago, I ‘swiped’ an email idea from the marketing wizard Ryan Levesque. The email was called ‘Do you hate me?’
Basically, whenever somebody fails to buy, you send them a tongue-in-cheek email with the subject: ‘Do you hate me?’
The technique works. It’s proven. But when the blowback came I felt sick.
“What has HATE got to do with any of it?” one subscriber wrote. “Consider me unsubscribed. Good riddance.”
Her unsubscribe didn’t bother me in the slightest. (Judging by her lack of humour, she wasn’t my sort of person anyway.) Still, it wasn’t the sort of email I would ever send. It didn’t come from my own personality.
If I was going to offend anyone, it had to be on my own terms.
And if I do genuinely regret what I’ve said – or happen to change my mind – only then should I apologise.
Lewis Carroll’s technique helps make this easy, because you get to:
a. Write hot. Write anything you want first. Use a pen and paper. Be as offensive as you like. Nobody else is allowed to see this.
b. Edit cold. Look at it again the next day. Decide if it says everything you want to say – and question whether it really is your opinion.
Don’t castrate your work. Just appraise it. And if you’re happy enough, send it.
It worked for Lewis Carroll. I’m sure it has even more value today.