Craft your letters as if they will be your career legacy

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2011 - 5:12 PM

"One of the promises I've made to myself in my new assignment," the memo began, "is to improve the promotability of each interested individual in my suboperation."

It was signed by L.G. Wilbers, Manager of Materials Engineering-Applications at General Electric's Evendale plant outside Cincinnati. Lawrence George Wilbers is my father. I came across the memo while we were going through some boxes in his garage.

"What are these?" I asked.

"Those are old papers from work," he said, his voice weary from the chaos of multiple family members helping him pack up his condo of 25 years in preparation for his move to assisted living.

Before I tossed them into the recycling pile, I selected a yellowed sheet at random and set it aside. It was dated Oct. 26, 1966. On that day I was two months into my senior year of high school and not all that interested in what my father was doing at work. Now, 45 years later, I was intrigued.

The memo was organized into five crisply worded, tightly structured paragraphs. The initials "dms" typed in the bottom-left corner spoke of a time when every manager had a secretary, almost invariably a female, whose job it was to make her boss look good. I knew my dad's writing well enough, however, to know he would have needed little assistance to turn out a quality memo.

The second paragraph read: "To this end, I wish each of you to establish an action plan of improvement items for each exempt person in your unit. This activity is appropriate now with the recently completed career discussions. I wish to have these action plans of improvement items completed and submitted to me by December 1, 1966."

Although wish might seem too formal by today's business writing standards, Dad's word choice was appropriate for its time, his meaning clear, his tone firm but respectful. The paragraph opened with a transitional topic sentence and closed with the deadline placed at a point of natural prominence, the last words of a sentence or a paragraph. Clearly Dad knew what he was doing.

As I took a closer look, the only imperfections I could find were two barely visible corrections, where letters had been erased and typed over, and one instance where the letter o crowded the letter d in don't where the typist had hit the o a little too quickly and nearly jammed the keys.

I was impressed both with the quality of Dad's writing and with his secretary's professional standards. I also was reminded of why all of us should take care with our writing: The words we write today -- even words in a chance message -- might one day serve as a record of our careers. They might even serve as a record of our lives.

The next box I reached into contained a packet bound with a string.

"What's this?" I asked.

"That? Those are letters I wrote to your mother during the war," he said.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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