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as communications. At the other, are those which are fully satisfactory (high-quality communications that people can sign with justifiable pride).
The hard job is determining which of those that fall in between the two extremes should be “within our tolerances” and which represent a lower quality than the Service can afford to send out to represent it.
What the workshops hope to help you and others accomplish is to move most of our writing out of the grey area and closer to the “fullysatisfactory” end of the scale.
One thing that the Internal Revenue Service, along with other Government agencies, has learned is that the old-time “traditional” Government writing style does not produce writing which will meet today's standards.
At its best, that style was too ponderous and too impersonal for all but the most formal communications. At its worst, it was “gobbledygook”— pseudoformal, wordy, stilted, pretentious, and sometimes pompous. It resulted in communications which were not responsive, clear, or concise and which, because they were seen as dictatorial or bureaucratic, were inappropriate in tone.
We should strive for an uncomplicated, natural, direct writing styleone that focuses the receiver's attention on the sense and substance of the message rather than on the writer or his vocabulary.
There is clear evidence that this uncomplicated style is suitable in all our communications, no matter how formal the communication or how high a position the receiver holds. In fact, official communications must be written simply and clearly so that busy receivers, deluged with paperwork, will not have to waste precious time extracting meaning.
The style has the blessing of all Federal agencies—and certainly of the Internal Revenue Service. Directives calling for it, and guidelines for using it, have been widely distributed throughout Government.
Still, some Government writers fear that “because we've always used the traditional style,” we must continue to do so if we want our writing approved and signed by our managers. Hopefully, the writing workshops for both managers and originators will help dispel this notion.
Others have misgivings about the style because it is informal. They perhaps fear that writers will go overboard and use a style that is too breezy or that is so informal as to seem almost chummy.
We must, of course, avoid this extreme. Our communications deal with serious subjects about which the receiver may already be quite sensitive or about which he may have antagonistic feelings. We must be careful to avoid any suggestion of breeziness or flippancy. Instead, we must work for a style that permits us to show regard for his feelings and respect for his personal dignity—but at the same time deal objectively and matter of factly with the situation.
We must also avoid the other extreme-being overformal and too impersonal. In the past, many writers used the same degree of formality in all their writing—whether they were writing a tax ruling or determination letter to a large corporation or replying to a taxpayer who asked when he would receive his refund or why he couldn't claim his motherin-law as a dependent.
We can write as formally or informally as the situation requires and still use an uncomplicated, natural, direct writing style.
Hard to do? Not really. It's the kind of writing you, as a reader, like to get from business organizations or Government agencies with whom you deal—and the kind of writing you like to read off the job in articles, magazines, and books.
More important, it probably represents the way you talk to people about official matters. If so, it will not require you to shift gears when you start to dictate or write a letter or memorandum. You'll simply ask yourself, “If I were talking with this person across the desk or over the telephone, how would I say it?” You'll modify it slightly when you write, of course. For writing can never be quite the same as speaking. But the more nearly it approximates thoughtful, disciplined speech, the better.
Characteristics of this style
What distinguishes a communication written in this style from one written in governmentese or gobbledygook?
1. It lets the receiver know at the outset what it's about
plunges right into the message without a lot of unnecessary
windup or rehashing of the incoming document. 2. It sets the tone (establishes the climate) in the first paragraph
and carries it throughout the message instead of relying on a
stereotyped “sugar paragraph” at the end. 3. It has a pattern of organization which is easy for the receiver
to follow; often gives the answer first and then the reasons
for it. 4. It speaks directly to the receiver-prefers the personal pro
nouns you, we, they, and (when appropriate) I to the impersonal it, the taxpayer, this agency, and the writer.
5. It is expressed in familiar, everyday words; does not add to
the complexity of the subject matter by using technical or
other unfamiliar language. 6. It compresses ideas into relatively short paragraphs and sen
tences (we call them “bite-sized”). 7. It connotes action—uses action words and direct, "head-on”
sentences; prefers the active to the passive voice for most
sentences. Using these characteristics as a measuring stick, it's easy to see why the so-called traditional style is not effective. Contrast the before-andafter writing which follows.
Before and After Letters*
Mr. John Doe
Agreeable to your communication of August 24th, we have consulted our actuarial department to ascertain the status of subject policy.
Inasmuch as your payment on said policy was due on August 20th and this classification carries a 31-day grace clause, your period of grace does not expire until September 20th.
Therefore, permission is hereby granted to delay remittance until that date. Trusting to hear from you by that time, I am
Very truly yours,
Mr. John Doe
Dear Mr. Doe:
I am glad to tell you that your policy (975 123 456)
*Used with permission, New York Life Insurance Company.
is still in force. It has a 31-day grace period; so you may pay your August 20 premium any time up to September 20.
BEFORE THE WORKSHOP ...
Dear Mr. Doe:
We are replying to your letter of June 22, 19—, and recent telephone conversations regarding duplicate payments of $11.33.
Our records indicate that two (2) payments of $11.33 were received and applied to
, Account Number - ', and
- , Account Number -. The adjustment is in process, and you may expect to receive your refund within the next three (3) weeks.
We regret the delay in replying to your correspondence, but in large paperwork operations such as ours, it is extremely difficult to completely avoid incidents of this kind. We will do our utmost to see that they do not recur and that you will be served more promptly and efficiently in the future.
Very truly yours,
AFTER THE WORKSHOP . ..
Dear Mr. Doe :
Within three weeks you will receive a refund check for $11.33, the amount of the duplicate payment you made on your
When we checked our records, after receiving your letter of June 22 and talking with you, we found that we had received duplicate payments.
Thank you for helping us straighten this matter out.
Very truly yours,
Let's not be too hard on ourselves
A word in our defense. Many of us worked hard to acquire the traditional style. And what we hoped to accomplish with it, we must still accomplish with the modern style.
One reason we used the third person and its companion—the passive voice—was to make it clear to the receiver that the instructions and interpretations were from the Service, not from any one individual in it. We wanted to make clear also our objectivity in administering and interpreting the tax laws.
We still must do this. But we don't have to rely on the third person, the passive voice, and a mass of qualifying words to accomplish our objective. In fact, we know now that they did
not accomplish it. We often used hedging instead of direct language to protect the Service from those who might, intentionally or unintentionally, misinterpret or misuse our communications.
We still must be discreet. But we need to remember the wise saying, “A little protective armor saves a ship; too much sinks it.”
We must use good judgment in determining when it is necessary to use qualifying or somewhat vague language and be careful to
use it sparingly. We thought communications from the Government to its citizens should be dignified. And they should. But our communications indicate that we thought it would be undignified in our writing to admit that we had made a mistake, to thank a person for calling our attention to the mistake, or to express regret for any inconvenience we might have caused him.
What we did not take into account is the fine line between dignity and pomposity. Nor did we consider that the kind of dignity we most admire, in an individual or an agency, is a simple, natural dignity—of manner and of expression. It is this kind of dignity we must strive for in our communications.
We also seemed not to realize that most people have more respect for an individual or an agency which admits to an honest mistake and states frankly what action has been taken to correct it.
Many of our letters now show that we take this view. We knew that, in many situations, we must be firm and specific, as well as courteous.
Our language, however, often communicated more than firmness.