Monday, May 30, 2016

There is no "I" in "Memo"

When you can write reasonably well, you often find yourself in some demand at work, at least if you work in an office-type environment. It would seem (editorial comment warning) that our educational system's focus in recent years on science and engineering at the expense of the arts has resulted in a world where the ability to string words together intelligently, logically, clearly and with some panache is becoming more and more rare.

So I am constantly being asked to review this memo, revise that letter, write an article for the newsletter or "take a look at" whatever document might be passing through the hands of my colleagues and supervisors. As a result, I've been faced with some interesting writing challenges, the most common of which being the task of finding a way to completely rewrite a boss' unintelligible gibberish without upsetting him or her or making him or her feel stupid.

My worst experience came when a very petulant supervisor brought me an extended document, told me it had been written by some other person and asked me to rewrite it on an emergency basis. I went right to work on it and, let me tell you, it was indeed a disaster: unclear, poorly argued, poorly structured and with numerous grammatical and spelling errors. When my supervisor came back 30 minutes later and saw the document bleeding the red of "Track Changes" on my screen, he freaked out. It turned out he had written the document himself and had given it to me thinking it just needed a minor refresh. My relationship with that supervisor was never the same and I eventually had to leave that job to escape his vindictive behaviour.

My most interesting and, honestly, most fun experience came just last week. Friday afternoon, 15 minutes before the end of the work day, my supervisor came to me with a memo he had written on behalf of his boss' new boss. The memo was quite well written -- it was intended to introduce the boss' new boss to her colleagues and did a nice job of it -- but the boss' new boss had apparently objected to the use of the word "I" in the memo. Apparently, this particular senior administrator does not like to use the first person singular pronoun in memos of any kind.

My task: in the remaining 15 minutes of the work week, could I revise the four-paragraph memo so that the word "I" no longer appeared in it and yet it still did its job and made sense?

Do you know how hard it is to write a memo introducing oneself without using the first person singular pronoun? It's hard, let me tell you.

I ended up using a number of "it"s, a couple of "me"s and a bunch of alternative sentence structures that permitted me to make anything but the boss' new boss the subject of a sentence. And I got it done. In ten minutes. I was pretty proud of myself. The memo read well and only a very attentive reader would notice the lengths I went to avoid using the word "I".

My supervisor and his boss agreed that, as a result of the great job I had done on this memo, I deserved the rest of the day off. Nice guys, my bosses!

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