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Why Writers Make the Most Effective Complainers

My 20-year-old son, who's studying to become an opera singer, last year gave me a complaint he'd written about one of his professors. He wanted to know if it was "too harsh." More importantly, because the complaint was to be anonymous, he wanted reassurance it couldn't be traced back to him.

It wasn't surprising my son asked me. My family considers me to be the diva of complaint letters — I've had denied health insurance claims turned around, received free services in recompense and even landed the occasional free product.

Here's how you can achieve the same results. Note that I've listed these tips in order of importance...

1) Keep your letter short and to the point. It should never be more than one page long including addresses and letterhead. (This will limit you to roughly 300 words.) If you need to include additional info, make it an appendix or an attachment, rather than part of the main letter. Busy people, like customer service managers or CEOs, don't have the time to read essays. Being short will also force you to focus on the one or two things that are most crucial to you, which means you're less likely to sound like a crank.

2) Don't try to be clever or smart. Sarcasm and strong language (my son had used the words "snake oil salesman" to describe his prof) may make you feel better but won't help your complaint. Instead, use friendly — or, at the very least, studiously neutral — language. If you want to express emotion, try to sound sad and disappointed rather than enraged and angry. And never sound gleeful about the chance to exercise your complaint or show off your superior vocabulary.

3) Address the letter to a specific person. Establishing a personal connection is one of the keys to successful complaints. Get the name of someone, spell it correctly and use his/her title as well.

4) Understand that everyone listens to the radio station WII-FM. Also known as "What's In It For Me," this network plays the songs that cause all of our toes to tap. Try to figure out how what you have to complain about is also hurting the company/organization you are complaining to. In my son's case, he feels the professor is using techniques that will damage the voices of young singers. Is he right? Who knows? But I bet it's a concern that will make the university sit up and pay attention.

5) Ask for something specific. Don't just complain. Tell them exactly how you want them to make it up to you. Do you want a fee waived? Do you want a return accepted? Do you want a complete refund? Do you want a professor instructed to teach in a different way? Or do you simply want an apology? Spell it out.

6) Be persistent. If you can't get what you want from your initial complaint, be prepared to take it up the chain of command. Last year when I tried to set up a merchant account with a credit card company (and they completely botched the application process, wasting three hours of my time). I asked for them to waive the $200 annual fee. "That's not possible," the rep told me. "Then who do I need to ask?" I replied. He told me and I emailed that person, who immediately granted my request. (I was amused to see how quickly and easily something deemed "impossible" could be achieved!)

7) Take excellent notes. Whenever I complain to a company or organization, I put a note in my iPhone's contact list, filed by the name of the company. In the "notes" section I add the date, the problem and the name of the person I wrote or spoke with and his/her response. Because I always approach this in exactly the same way, and because it's linked to my cell phone, that's always with me, I never lose my notes. (This is invaluable with verbal complaints. Sometimes simply reciting the names of all the customer service reps I've spoken with is enough to get the company to pay attention to my complaint.)

Yes, skillful writers often make the most effective complainers. But it’s not about style; it’s about technique. Be brief. Be clear. Don’t give up easily.

Come to think of it, exactly the same advice applies to most writing jobs.


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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 10th 2015, 11:08 AM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Thanks for an extremely useful list of pointers. Some of my letters have been more effective than others, and now I see why!
Monday August 10th 2015, 2:24 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hope this helps you in future, catwalker!
Saturday August 29th 2015, 9:29 AM
Comment by: sebastien (Quimper France)
"Be brief. Be clear.", Glad to read these favorite tips !

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