I was intrigued last week by reports of an email that the Education Secretary Michael Gove has sent to civil servants with his top ten tips on how to construct a letter.
I suspect that because Michael Gove rubs an awful lot of people up the wrong way that his advice may have been met with a certain amount of derision. Jokers may have even added in an eleventh point making some partisan point about his politics or style. But it seems to me that many of his points are standard advice given out to anyone interested in writing. “If in doubt, cut it out” is a piece of wisdom that is often dispensed (see my earlier post on George Orwell’s tips for better writing here, for example).
I confess that I was a little puzzled by his list of recommended writers: George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens. I’ve never seen Parris’ name on a list like this, although I agree that he writes with clarity and his pieces are often funny and insightful. And I wouldn’t agree with pointing people in the direction of Simon Heffer, who doesn’t really seem to agree that language should be allowed to evolve.
The point that really interested me was “would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence?” I’ll confess right now that I’m not always sure who it is that I write for. I suppose that I write for my own pleasure, and see if anything comes of it. My work gets shown to my writers’ group and might perhaps be entered in a competition or for a reading.
There are two other people though who see a lot of what I write. One is my wife and the other is my Mum.
Now, Michael Gove’s point about mums is about comprehension – and I suppose the Mum Test is a good one. Could this everywoman understand what I’m writing about and the words I’ve used? Are my sentences clear enough to convey meaning? And what of the references to popular culture that I may have used – would my Mum get the joke? Does it matter if she doesn’t? I spend a lot of time editing and rejigging my work, in part to make sure that my work says what I want it to and that people will understand what I want them to. I’ve never really envisaged my Mum when I’m doing this, but maybe it would be helpful for me to start.
The Mum Test that I have struggled ith goes beyond what the Education Secretary is talking about – it’s about embarrassment. Because I’m an adult I often write about adult themes. My characters sometimes have sex. Or employ prostitutes. Or attend swingers’ parties. And quite often they use bad language. Despite being a grown man I do sometimes feel a little red-faced when showing her my work. It’s like when you’re watching the TV with your parents and there’s a graphic sex scene. Having said this my Mum has never passed any adverse comment about my chosen subject matter. She obviously passes the Writers’ Friend Test, which is perhaps just as important as the Mum Test.
If you’re interested in Gove’s tips, here they are:
1. If in doubt, cut it out.
2. Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don’t send it.
3. In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
4. The more the letter reads like a political speech the less good it is as a letter.
5. Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
6. Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.
7. Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.
8. Gwynne’s Grammar is a brief guide to the best writing style.
9. Simon Heffer’s Strictly English is a more comprehensive – and very entertaining – companion volume.
10. Our written work should be the clearest, most elegant, and most enjoyable to read of any Whitehall department’s because the Department for Education has the best civil servants in Whitehall.