How to not sound like a condescending prat in your writing
One of the fastest ways to turn your reader off is to use certain words or phrases that make you sound like a condescending arsehole and them like a dumb reader.
It’s easy to unintentionally slip into a condescending mode when writing instructions, especially if you’re trying to maintain a chirpy or friendly tone of voice in your writing. I often have to remind myself about this.
When writing instructions, look out for phrases such as:
- You should…
- Make sure you know …
- Remember, you have to …
- Don’t forget to…
- Be sure not to…
- You know you can …
- Simply …
Each of these phrases has more than a whiff of condescension about them. And of all these phrases, ‘you should’ is the worst culprit. You shouldn’t use it. Ha! See what I did there?
In your mind, ‘Remember to keep your receipt’ might sound like a friendly reminder and sit well with your overall tone of voice. But in your reader’s head, it might come across as a ‘Duh’ comment. And ‘Duh’ comments reflect poorly on your writing.
I especially hate the word ‘simply’ when writing instructions.
‘Simply fill in the form!’
What if the form isn’t simple to everyone? What if people who don’t have the literacy skills or if English is not their first language can’t understand the fields in the form and ‘simply’ fill it in?
Thanks for making us feel like dummies.
Condescending language raises defences
People usually don’t like being told what to do. And nobody likes being talked down to. And that’s how those phrases can come across if you use them when giving instructions. It’s a quick way to make our hackles rise.
And that is no way to get your important message across.
I often work on government projects where the content gives instruction and advice. In these situations, I avoid using the phrase ‘You should’. Instead, if there’s a mandatory requirement, I use ‘You must’. If it’s not a mandatory requirement, I delete the ‘You should’. For example:
❌ You should always wear a helmet.
✔ You must wear a helmet.
✔ Always wear a helmet.
Changing condescending language in your writing
Consider the following instructions:
- Before you serve the noodles, make sure you chill them in the fridge first.
- Remember, you have to log in first so the discount will apply.
- You know you can call us if you have any questions.
- Simply add a back tuck to your roundoff back handspring to impress the judges.
Each of these statements can be simplified and the condescending phrase removed to make them stronger.
How do they read now?
- Before you serve the noodles, chill them in the fridge first.
- Log in first so the discount will apply.
- Call us if you have any questions.
- Add a back tuck to your roundoff back handspring to impress the judges.
No condescension. Get straight to the point. Cutting the fluff is one of the core tenets of good writing.
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