Last week, my main sewer line collapsed and backed up into my basement. It was disgusting, and infuriating, and resulted in lots of men tromping through my house doing expensive things to help.
When a few of the contractors nicely asked what I did, and I said that I teach business writing, the responses were a lot of throat-clearing and awkward requests not to judge their communication with me. I tried to assuage their insecurities by saying that I was really appreciative of what they did know that I didn’t: plumbing, cleaning up basements, etc. and I wouldn’t be evaluating their work based on their written communication with me. This did not seem to make them feel a whole lot better.
When I received the first email from one of these contractors, I was actually pretty impressed by his writing. Sure, there were a few grammar errors, but it was also clear (and had been in his face-to-face and verbal communication) that he was incredibly attuned to his audience. His messages showed a lot of care for me as the customer with phrases like “as you requested” and “thank you for allowing us” and “I will look for your response”. They also showed an awareness that the messages would be read by a larger audience, not just his team and bosses, but my insurance company, so he made sure to detail every single step that had been taken and what was left to do. The level of awareness of audience in that first email superseded most of my undergraduates and many of the employees that I work with.
People are afraid of writing to writing instructors because they are afraid that all the little things they don’t know or remember about grammar and spelling will be judged. But in my role as a writing instructor, it’s my job to notice those things and point them out to people so that they can learn, grow, and improve. If those mistakes aren’t brought to their attention, they continue to make them or start to believe that errors aren’t important. And while one or two grammar mistakes in a message are usually ok, more than a couple will probably lead to negative judgment on the part of most readers.
But grammar errors are a superficial way of judging people’s credibility. The reality is that grammar errors don’t tell us whether a person is actually credible or not, they are only a sign that we use to guess whether they are credible or not. The fewer grammar errors there are, the more people focus on aspects of writing that actually matter: whether you know what you are doing and whether you care about the people you are working with.
My contractor’s email showed that he knew exactly what he was doing: the work itself, managing his team, and handling the details for the future insurance claim. It also showed that he cared about me, his customer, and was concerned that I had what I needed, that I understood what had been done and what would be happening over the next few days, and that he expected to be in conversation with me on a regular basis. The content of his message proved that he was credible. And the way it was written—short paragraphs, appropriate formatting, clear sentences—supported that assessment of his credibility.
Yes, I did notice a few word choice errors like “please no that you do not need to be home.” Most of us probably see the incorrectly spelled word immediately and understand the mistake. But it was far more important to me that the contractor focused on my needs, explaining processes clearly, and detailing how we would communicate over the next few days.
When you are writing, try not to be afraid that you’re writing isn’t good enough. That’s a concern only we professional writers and editors need to have. Your main writing concern, as a person trying to conduct business, should be on showing the audience that you care about them by 1) actually engaging in a conversation with them, 2) providing complete and thorough information that reassures them you know what you are doing and can help them in a meaningful way, and 3) writing clearly with short sentences and short paragraphs that are organized in a logical way. Write a draft, step away from it for a few minutes, read it over again and fix whatever grammar errors you can see (you can’t see all of them; none of us can in our own writing). Show your audience that you care enough to try.