I just finished reading Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. I have to say I’m impressed; I bought the book thinking it might have material I could teach as part of my Technical Writing course, and I did not expect to sit down and read it in one sitting. I also didn’t expect to laugh while doing so. Who knew a book about writing emails could be funny and engaging? Well, it can be.
Send is actually an acronym, and this is one part of the book I’m not a fan of. It struck me as a little forced. Simple, effective, necessary, and done simply don’t summarize this book very well. But if that’s my only complaint, I’m still a happy customer.
The best part of the book is the approach it takes to rhetorical situation as a complex construction. For example, it deals with tone from an audience-centered perspective: “If you don’t consciously insert tone into an email, a kind of universal default tone won’t automatically be conveyed. Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties” (10). Shipley and Schwalbe describe email as “democratic” in a great equalizer sort of way, meaning context is often whitewashed in the inbox (if not in the email itself). Context can also be deceptive at the level of grammar and syntax. For example, the authors assert that short, simple sentences intensify meaning and complex, rhythmic sentences soften meaning (129). They’re citing John F. Kennedy’s writings to prove this, but it does seem to apply to email.
One of the most interesting theoretical contentions in this book is that email “removes the temporal and physical barriers that keep” wild emotions in check in other situations (177). Of course, anyone who has emailed for more than a month already knows this. But it’s interesting to see that vague sense of danger put into words. And if that articulation isn’t enough, the authors give a long list of examples of when the send button proved quite dangerous, from the scandal involving Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to myriad stories of high-powered business people being fired/indicted/shamed based on email evidence (think Harry Stonecipher, Mark Foley, Charles Rosenthal)(200).
And here’s one final gem, perhaps my favorite, since it goes along with visible rhetoric: “In a recent survey, many employers said they would not interview a candidate if they didn’t like the font on his application or cover letter” (96). Next time someone giggles about my teaching about font and typeface in Technical Writing, I’ll have a ready comeback!