Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Are You Willing to Talk About the Elephant in the Room?

A friend of mine recently did something dangerous. No, she didn't ride a motorcycle up a mountain during a lightning storm, try bungee jumping off a bridge or attempt to go windsurfing with belugas. Here's her confession: When submitting an RFQ she included a brief personal essay.

An RFQ for those of you who aren't lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to work for government stands for Request for Qualifications. It's a long and tedious "question and answer" type of form designed to see whether you have the chops to get on what's essentially a "preferred supplier" list.

Cynics might say it's a long and tedious form designed to see if you have the patience to work with bureaucrats, but I digress...

As my friend was slogging through the form, a contrarian notion suddenly floated across her mind. "Hey," she thought. "They want to find out if I can write. So maybe I should show them."

It probably helps that my friend is not just a corporate communications expert, but also a performer (a jazz singer), so a bit of showiness is deeply embedded in her DNA. Still, I thought it took some chutzpah for her to defy the unspoken rules of "professional" behavior and attempt to get personal with government by including an essay with her form.

Furthermore, while she was busy spilling her guts, she happened to glance at her bulletin board and noticed a 20-year-old photo of herself with an elephant. I'm not making this up. The elephant was real and the photo had been taken for a promotion she'd been involved with. Thinking "what the hell," she scanned the picture, inserted it into her Word document and did a nice little text wrap around it.

As you may have guessed, her ploy was wildly successful. She landed a meeting more or less immediately and the government functionary who met her at the elevator recognized her and commented favorably on her submission. Oh, and she made the RFQ list.

So, if you want to succeed as a writer, I suggest you rush out and get yourself an elephant. (Ha ha — just kidding.) Actually, I think there are three take-away lessons here:

  1. Don't assume that the government or corporate worlds always demand stuffiness. When doing business writing it's tempting to become formal and uptight. You know what I mean — avoiding contractions, utilizing words like "utilize" (instead of "use"), being sucked into passive construction ("mistakes were made"). Don't write like you're filling in a form. Remember: bureaucrats are people too. Sound like a human being and they may just treat you like one.
  2. Be yourself. Even in this age of processed food and processed entertainment (think American Idol) we still value authenticity — the real deal, the taste of truth rather than packaging. In fact, I think it's because authenticity is so hard to find these days, that we crave it even more. So if you haven't worked with elephants, don't stick them in your resume. But if you have, why try to hide them? Show who you really are — in your writing and in everything you do.
  3. Do something that makes you stand out from the crowd. As Gypsy Rose Lee said, "You gotta have gimmick." My friend had an elephant, which is pretty hard to beat, size-wise. But you, too, can make your writing more interesting or jazzier in small ways. It just takes some creative thinking. And some guts.

Be brave.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 11th 2008, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Dont you think that a "friend of mine" is double possessive ("mine" is already possesive and "of mine" make it double possessive, I thought!) and wrong; I thought that "one of my friends" is the correct usage.

Please correct me, if I am wrong!
Monday August 11th 2008, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Raju, here's a useful summary of "double genitives" from The American Heritage Book of English Usage:
People sometimes object to the “double genitive” construction, as in a friend of my father’s or a book of mine. But the construction has been used in English since the 14th century and serves a useful purpose. It can help sort out ambiguous phrases like Bob’s photograph, which could mean either “a photograph of Bob” (i.e., revealing Bob’s image) or “a photograph that is in Bob’s possession.” A photograph of Bob’s, on the other hand, can only be a photo that Bob has in his possession and may or may not show Bob’s image. Moreover, in some sentences the double genitive offers the only way to express what is meant. There is no substitute for it in a sentence such as That’s the only friend of yours that I’ve ever met, since sentences such as That’s your only friend that I’ve ever met and That’s your only friend, whom I’ve ever met are not grammatical.
Monday August 11th 2008, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Thanks very much, Ben!
But in our specific context, which usage would be better? or is it up to the author?
Please comment!
Monday August 11th 2008, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
In this case I see it as a matter of authorial style and emphasis. If Daphne had written "One of my friends...", then the focus would be on the friend being one of several, while "A friend of mine..." restricts the focus to the particular friend without reference to any others.

You can read even more on the subject from World Wide Words and The Maven's Word of the Day.
Monday August 11th 2008, 2:20 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
The idea of putting a bit of yourself into dull documents is useful in personal life, not just for the professional. I recently was slogging through insurance paperwork after a plumbing leak in our home during a two week vacation caused several thousand dollars of damage.

One item that was ruined was my wedding gown from 1953. I had no idea how to calculate its current value, if any. So I wrote a brief history of when the gown was purchased for $250, a princely sum in 1953. Then I told of its full restoration for our 50th anniversary party and displayed on a mannequin as part of the decor, with full train artfully arranged. (No way will I ever fit into THAT dress again)I offered pictures if needed. I admitted knowing it was old, but confessed to hoping that a grandchild might one day wear it or make creative use of the satin and lace as a part of her wedding day. I asked if insurance company had a formula to evaluate such an item.

They did. They paid me $500 and I believe telling the story of the dress increased its value far beyond being just a line in a column of ho-hum items.
Tuesday August 12th 2008, 5:03 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Thanks very much, Ben!

BTW, I should definitely express my appreciation loudly of the idea that she conveyed. I indeed consider her recommendations as very useful!

VT is indeed great, and kudos to the team!
Monday August 18th 2008, 7:51 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sorry to have missed this exchange -- I've been on holiday and offline. Thanks for weighing in, Ben. For me, Raju, there is also the question of rhythm. The meter of "A friend recently did something dangerous" (which would be correct and shorter) seemed too harsh to me while adding the extra syllables "of mine" seemed to make it more flowing. That said, I don't generally support redundancy in aid of rhythm! "One of my friends recently did something dangerous" is rhythmic, use same number of words as the original and is not redundant, but, as Ben notes, it puts the emphasis on the wrong spot.

And by the way, I didn't think about any of this when I wrote the piece. (So don't tie yourself in these kinds of knots when you're writing or you'll never get anything done!!)

Thank you for the wedding dress story, Marian. It's a superb illustration of the power of story (and I'm certain it at least doubled the money you received from the insurance company.) Well done!

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