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Bureaucratic Writing

“Writing like a bureaucrat takes study, practice”

“Public servants deserve our respect, not our ridicule”

“Columnist uses secret weapon on bureaucrats”


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Writing like a bureaucrat takes study, practice

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

The following column elicited a mixed response from readers.

Some readers, like readability consultant Mark, found it helpful; others, like Katherine of Fort Worth, found it offensive, an affront to public servants. Tom, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, objected because he thought it reinforced negative stereotypes of government workers. He also found it ill timed, given Commissioner Michael O’Keefe’s leadership in improving the quality and style of the department’s correspondence with the public.

My intent in writing the column was not to attack writers in any particular sector, public or private, but to take a satiric look at a type of writer who offends the reader by writing in a style that is commonly referred to as “bureaucratic.”

What’s your take? Did I miss the mark? What do you think of my follow-up columns, which appear below. If you care to register your opinion, please send me a

Of all the on-the-job writers, the bureaucrat is perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned. Although many people assume that anyone can write like a bureaucrat, truly accomplished bureaucratic writers have devoted many long hours of study and practice to learn their craft.

To write like a bureaucrat, you must learn to think like a bureaucrat. You must cultivate a healthy disdain for others based on the belief that human beings are a despicable lot, a species worthy of your contempt, and that somehow you stand apart from the mob.

The best way to declare your separateness from others is to demonstrate, both in your writing and in your manner, that you are devoid of all human feelings and emotions. The more emotional the situation is for others, the colder, more detached, more distant you show yourself to be.

Once your mind is right, you’re ready to start learning the techniques of bureaucratic writing. Here they are:

Never say please or thank you. Politeness undermines your position of superiority. As the person with power, you have
no need for social graces. Rather than “Thank you for your letter of October 1, 2000,” write “Your letter of October 1, 2000, is acknowledged.” Rather than “Please return the enclosed form by October 15,” write “Return the enclosed form by October 15.”

Say no abruptly. Don’t beat around the bush. Your reader might mistake indirection for diplomacy. Bad news delivered
without preamble will make your reader feel discounted and unimportant. Rather than “Thank you for your letter requesting an exception to our policy,” write “Your request for an exception to our policy is denied.” Can you hear the difference?

Quote policy rather than provide rationale. The best no is an arbitrary no. If you must offer a reason for your decision,
quote policy rather than explain your decision. An effective technique here is to quote long policy statements and to present them in single-spaced text, indented from the left margin. If possible, find some rule or regulation that, on closer examination, doesn’t apply to the situation at hand.

Note that policy manuals, often drafted by committees, are a wonderful source of bureaucratic language. Accomplished
bureaucrats have memorized any number of useful passages that they can slip seamlessly into their own writing as the occasion demands.

Don’t explain a deadline. Never offer an explanation for something you are requiring of your reader. Remember,
explanations are a sign of weakness.

Use nouns rather than verbs. Avoid action verbs. They convey movement, and movement is antithetical to the
bureaucratic mind. Think of yourself as a boulder standing in the way of your reader’s goal, not as a swinging door through which any dolt can pass.

Rather than “You must meet these requirements before we can approve your request and issue a permit,” write “Satisfaction of these requirements must occur prior to approval of any such request and issuance of any such permit.”

Avoid using personal pronouns. You’ll find it easier to avoid action verbs, as well as to remain aloof and distant, if you
avoid using personal pronouns, especially I, we, and you. Note the effect of removing you, we, and your in the revised version of the preceding example.

Use language that directs your reader’s attention elsewhere. Especially useful is language that points, such as
above-referenced, below-listed, herein, therein, heretofore, and undersigned. Language that directs the reader’s attention away from the writer supports the illusion that as a bureaucrat you do not exist in time and space. It’s as if you are saying, “Look somewhere else, not here, not now. I have no physical embodiment, no face, no voice, no mind.”

The bureaucratic mindset is a wondrous thing. Arrogance mixed with insecurity – what a powerful combination.



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Public servants deserve our respect, not our ridicule

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Well, the verdict is in. According to readers in Minnesota, Texas, and California, I missed the mark in my satiric column on how to write like a bureaucrat.

I heard both from readers who appreciated my column and from readers who were offended by it.
Mark, a nationally known readability consultant, thought the seven points I raised would make a helpful checklist for “bureaucratic language vs. plain language,” and he told me he had received “very positive comments” from an online literacy discussion group.

But a larger number of readers reacted negatively. Tom, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, called to tell me many of the “bureaucrats” in his department had been hurt by the column. Katherine Houk, a public servant in the Fort Worth, Texas, area, wrote: “Now who is being condescending? For such a cheap shot, you have lost my respect and readership.”

Bret, Public Information Manager of the City of Anaheim, wrote: “I plan on getting out of government soon in favor of life in the private sector, and [the attitude expressed in your column] is just another reminder of why. The satisfaction I get from helping those who need it is no longer worth the misguided grief I have to put up with while trying to make my community a better place.”

In the column in question, I used satire to expose the assumptions that, in my opinion, lead certain people to write in a
bureaucratic style – arrogance linked to insecurity, abuse of power linked to disregard for others – and I offered tongue-in-cheek advice on how to avoid such a style: Never say please or thank you; say no abruptly, quote policy rather than provide rationale; don’t explain a deadline; use nouns rather than verbs; avoid personal pronouns such as I, we, and you; and use language that directs the reader’s attention away from the writer.

As an illustration of the problem I was trying to address, consider the following two letters:

“Your letter of October 26, 2000, is acknowledged. Pursuant to city ordinance 114b, said request is hereby denied. Any and all appeals regarding aforesaid decision must be submitted in writing to the undersigned by November 15, 2000. There are no exceptions to the aforementioned procedure.”

“Thank you for your letter of October 26. We have carefully reviewed your reasoning for why you think you should be exempt from city ordinance 114b requiring sprinkler systems in multi-unit, high-rise dwellings. As a matter of public safety, however, we must deny your request. You may appeal this decision by sending a letter to I. B. Fare of the zoning commission. So that Mr. Fare can rule on your appeal without delaying your building permit, your letter must be received by November 15. We appreciate your cooperation.”

Unfortunately, nearly all of us have received letters written in the bureaucratic style of the first example. To be addressed in such a manner is belittling and disrespectful. It makes us feel angry and resentful. To those who take perverse pleasure in writing in that style, I stand by my words.

But to those who have devoted their careers to public service, to those who try to convey a human voice in their writing
whenever it is appropriate to do so, to those who are tired of being called bureaucrats whenever they tell someone no or enforce an unpopular policy, I apologize.

Without rules, civilized society could not exist. Fair-minded and reasonable enforcers of those rules deserve our respect and gratitude – not our ridicule – for doing what is often a thankless job.


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Columnist uses secret weapon on bureaucrats

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

It was one of those cool, gray, November days in Minnesota, the kind of between-seasons day that comes after the trees have dropped their leaves and before the first snow has fallen, the kind of day that sometimes makes me feel glum.
To cheer myself up, I went downstairs, got out my collection of missing commas, and began sorting those tiny little punctuation marks into neat little piles around me.

I made piles of missing commas after titles (as in Thomas Carter, account executive_has provided exemplary leadership), missing commas in addresses (as in Minneapolis, Minnesota_is a nice place to live), missing commas after the year in dates (as in On August 24, 2000_I set off on my 23rd annual canoe trip with my 75-year-old father), and missing commas after modifying words or phrases (as in Her boss, a superb writer_is a meticulous editor).

I was just beginning to feel a little better when I heard pounding at my front door. It was my neighbor.

“The bureaucrats are coming! The bureaucrats are coming!” he shouted.

“What? Where?”

“I saw them on my way home from work – thousands of them!” he said. “And they’re headed this way!”

“But what do they want with me?”

“I dunno. Must be that column you wrote making fun of people who write like bureaucrats!”

“Are they government workers?”

“Some are, I guess, but they seem to be coming from all areas: corporations, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, even daycare centers. You better run for it!”

“Gadzooks!” I cried. “I think it’s time to go for a little cruise in my CommaMobile!”

Without pausing to don protective clothing, I called my trusty sidekick Robinowitzenschnauser and dashed for the garage, where I fired up my sleek black charger with its sweeping tail fins and its turbo-charged dual cam jet engines, and tore down the alley just ahead of the raging mob.

I was beginning to think we might escape unharmed when a single bureaucrat appeared at the end of the alley, his face devoid of features, his arms jerking up and down like a mechanical doll. Above the squeal of my brakes I could hear an expressionless voice intoning, “The aforementioned column has been deemed insulting and unacceptable, and for said affront a price must be paid.”

I hit my ejector button, and in the blink of an eye Robinowitzenschnauser and I were standing on the pavement, about to make a break for it on foot, when the horde of enraged bureaucrats closed in around us.

“It is imperative that his voice be removed,” said one bureaucrat, reaching for my throat.

“A determination has been made that his verbs undergo a change to nouns,” said another.

“Hereinafter said writer shall forego use of any and all personal pronouns, thereby effecting an elimination of I, we, and you, specifically in reference to said writer and said writer’s readers.”

Fearless in the face of their onslaught, I held my ground, confident that they would fail in their efforts to vanquish the human spirit, joyous in my knowledge that they could never halt the heartbeat of humanity, secure in my belief that they were powerless to defend themselves from my secret weapon: humor.

At a nod from me, my trusty sidekick stepped forward, laid an olfactory-assault, traction-reduction device on the pavement before us, and let out a triumphant yelp. Instantly the menacing mob was gagging, slipping, sliding, and scattering in all directions.

“Let’s go home, partner,” I said, giving Robinowitzenschnauser a pat on the head. “I think we’ve had enough adventure for one day.”




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