Les rêveries du retraité solitaire

Les rêveries du retraité solitaire

Writing in a Changing World

I found on a website dedicated to the history of the Mill family a letter written by my grandmother in 1912. She writes to her aunts in England to tell them that her father (their brother) had passed away. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:


“The sad message bearing the most formidable news of the death of your deeply regretted brother and our much bereaved grandfather has left you inconsolable, I know, as it has left every one of his children and we grandchildren, but knowing fully well that an aching heart likes to receive a few words of consolation, some which can alleviate the pains to be endured, I hasten to come and sympathize with you both on the grievous misfortune befallen on you and your dear ones who are much distressed at the loss of our dear grandfather whose presence we appreciated so much especially these last years as he so often repeated his welcomed visits to our home. We have always proved ourselves faithful and kind to our deeply mourned grandfather and in this hour of distress why should we not be the first to place balm into the grieved heart of his only remaining ones of his family, who, I know, constantly sob on his departure. Yes, my dearest of Aunts, we can weep over the tomb and in memory of this departed one; it is but proper and legitimate that we should do so, but we must be resigned and accept this great separation for it is God's will and we must be ready to submit to it and with as much courage as our regretted grandfather did submit to it and bore his intense sufferings with such an unlike patience which was a sure way to acquire the harbour of refuge where we all hope he is now enjoying eternal bliss.” 


It’s obvious that the way she writes is very different from the way people write today. Her writing style is very grandiloquent and full of religious references that were very common in those days, but that would sound rather strange in our modern and more secular world. When my sister and her husband bought an old house in Maniwaki, they found in the attic old newspapers published in French at the beginning of the last century. Even if the articles in those newspapers were telling stories and expressing more opinions than personal feelings, they were not written in the way a journalist would tell a similar story today. The style was different; the choice of words and the structure of the sentences were different.  


My grandmother wrote that letter two generations ago. I don’t know how young people would react to the articles that I post on my blog. I guess I’ll never know. The very few people who read my articles are all over sixty years old, and I don’t have any children and grandchildren. I think and write like someone who was born in the middle of the last century. I write about things and comment about events that took place over the course of my life. I make cultural and religious references that young people could not possibly understand. I have learned to write French in a private high school where most of my teachers were from France. They were teaching us the way they had learned, in a very formal and traditional way. What I have learned from them is a rigorous way of analyzing a subject followed by a methodical and structured way to put together the elements of a text.


The way I write in English is similar in the way I plan and structure my articles, but my style is much simpler. When I write in English, I feel like a cabinet maker who has to work with only a few basic tools. Young people reading one of my articles in English would not see as much difference between theirs and my way of writing as if they were reading an article that I wrote in French. I have no formal training on how to write in English. What I learned, I learned from reading books and articles.


When I was at the Bank of Canada, I was responsible to teach French writing to Francophone and Anglophone employees who had to communicate in writing with their colleagues or clients. I was not teaching them the same way that I had been taught when I was in high school and university but there were a lot of similarities. The spelling and grammar were the same, of course, but the approach was different. The writing process we used is known as the communicative or functional approach. It is based on how to make the objectives of the writer meet the needs of the reader in the most efficient way. This approach is now widely used in non-academic environments everywhere in the world. The basic principles are the same no matter the language. Thanks to Jamie McKinnon, my supervisor at the Bank of Canada when I was teaching writing, who took me through the steps of the writing process. Let me summarize that process for you.


First, you have to question yourself about your objective or objectives. The real objective of a text is rarely only to inform. It is often to convince, justify, defend, stimulate, encourage, praise, etc. You should then ask yourself what change you expect your text will make on your readers. The next questions you should ask yourself before starting to write are about your audience: Who is going to read my text? What do they want to find in it? What do they know about the subject? What are their background and level of education? It is important to analyze your audience carefully if you don’t want to miss your target. It will also affect the choice of words you are going to use, the length and complexity of your sentences, the type of information you are going to give, and the overall tone of your text. The next step is to put together your ideas and organize them in a way that makes sense to your audience.


I was watching The Agenda [1] on TVO a few years ago. The subject was how writing is used in today’s world in connection with other means of communication. One interesting thing that was said by one of the participants is that the boundaries between the different types of communication are becoming a lot more fluid. I remember a few presentations that I made at work using PowerPoint a few years before I retired.  It was a combination of writing and oral communication. I found that I wasn’t really prepared for that. In my days, the education system, including universities, was putting a lot more emphasis on writing. I don’t know if it’s because of that fact, or because it’s in my nature, but I feel a lot more comfortable expressing myself in writing.


Another striking difference between the way people used to write and the way they write now is spelling and grammar. I’m not talking about the code that young people use when they are texting, like replacing the word “you” with the letter “u”. I read a lot of stuff online, both in French and English. It’s obvious to me that most people often don’t know how to spell simple words, and that they don’t have even a basic knowledge of grammar. I don’t worry too much about that. I think that in the future spelling and grammar correctors will become more efficient while ordinary people will know less and less about spelling and grammar.


The fact is that more and more people are writing more and more than ever. A lot of the communication that was done over the phone, between colleagues at work or suppliers and their clients, is now done by text messages or emails. People express their opinions by writing on social networks. There are people like me who have a blog. In today’s world, being able to communicate in writing efficiently is a requirement for many jobs. The big difference is that writing is much less formal than before. In the old days, writing was like putting on your Sunday clothes, like my grandmother did when she wrote to her aunts in England.


In the future, I think there will be less and less difference between the way people speak and write. The academic world, which has always been very traditional in its approach to teaching writing skills, is starting to react and make the necessary changes in order to adapt to the new reality. On the front page of a report posted online by The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges there is that sentence:



“Writing today is not the frill for a few, but an essential skill for the many.”



[1] The Agenda is a daily program during the week on TVO (TV Ontario). They address a great variety of subjects. It's a very good program.

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