Gove v Gowers: rules for writing

copy of Plain Words bookI was amused to find out this week that Michael Gove has been telling his civil servants how to write letters.

He has compiled what he calls, rather presumptuously, ‘Gove’s Golden Rules’ for writing. The ten rules – listed in the Guardian – are fairly arbitrary, a mish-mash of George Orwell, the Plain English Campaign and personal prejudice.

The idea of helping civil servants to write better – although not a new idea – is not a bad thing. I’ve worked as an editor in the civil service and there were times when it was hard to follow my own advice about editing: ‘find out what they are trying to say, then say it’. Sometimes the actual message was quite difficult to identify.

But I wonder whether a government minister is the right person to put the writers right.

Mr Gove’s covering letter is reproduced in part in a Spectator blog. It begins by thanking the recipient for ‘asking me, on behalf of your colleagues, how I like letters to be drafted’.

I wonder whether the civil servant in question actually felt that Mr Gove was following his own advice: to answer the actual question that had been asked (or, in his more formal style, ‘address the direct questions raised in the letter’). I doubt whether they actually meant to ask for a lesson in how to write.

And Mr Gove wasn’t exactly following his own advice to be ‘concise, precise and polite’, either. His own letter is over 600 words long, much more than would fit on one side of a piece of A4.

There is one thing we can agree on. I was pleased to find out that Mr Gove is happy to start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’.

But I was surprised to find him suggesting that civil servants read ‘George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens’ to improve their writing. These are novelists and journalists: novels and newspapers are completely different from civil service communications. As a journalist, he should know the key trick of his trade: write in a style appropriate to the audience and the medium. Writing like a novelist or a broadsheet journalist is not going to make a good civil service letter.

What really surprised me, though, is that Mr Gove made no mention of Ernest Gowers, who dealt with exactly this question over fifty years ago.

Sir Ernest Gowers was a civil servant who wrote the bible: Plain Words, published in 1948, was written ‘to improve official English’. Although the style now sounds old-fashioned, it is full of good sense that stands the test of time – for example, there’s a great chapter on verbosity.

The book is still in print, in a volume called The Complete Plain Words (included with its sequel). Perhaps Michael Gove could have saved himself some time and sent his civil servants a copy.

Posted in Plain English, Writing
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