As part of an ongoing dual-use of this blog, I will be posting various musings in preparation of a study-abroad to Amsterdam. Eventually I am going to rework the backend guts of this blog such that all Amsterdam content falls into its own separate category and feed, but that is for later. For now, let us consider the revealing study of close-reading a perhaps common email:

The subject is “Deadline: Midnight tonight.” While email subjects are, by convention, supposed to inform the recipient of the specific contents enclosed within, such that the importance and relevance of the mail may be determined without actually reading it, this email deliberately eschews transparency for ambiguity, leaving me with no choice but to open it to discern its contents. The urgency and set timeframe magnifies this effect.

The email opens with “Friend.” These people have my first name on file given my previous donation, and have used it in mailings past, so it’s of importance that they chose not to use it for this mailing. Given the ease by which electronic mass-mailings today can insert your name into correspondences, the use of the greeting “Friend” seems almost more personal, against conventional wisdom — and given the soon-to-be-revealed nature of this email, a personal tone is important to these peoples’ cause. There is a space between the greeting “Friend” and the following punctuation “–” which draws attention to this word choice.

The first body line reveals all. Concise without being impersonal (referring directly in second person to the reader multiple times), the sentence remedies all the vagaries of the subject line by stating in a lone sentence comprising a lone paragraph the mission statement of this lengthy email. Its content is complete enough to persuade immediately those who understand its implications to do its bidding with no further questions or reading required, short enough to inform the disinterested to turn away, and intriguing enough to push the interested on. The second paragraph — also a single sentence — reinforces this last point.

The content of the email follows with several extremely short paragraphs, each drilling into further and further background and generality from the incredibly precise topic of the opening line, providing as the first line did progressively wider information for the curious and numerous jumping-off points for those who have decided whether to enact upon the call of the email to cease reading.

This series culminates with two final calls. The first addresses the direct implications of the donation you will be making to the campaign; the voice of the paragraph makes no question out of whether or not the reader will in fact enact upon the email, as if to project into the reader’s mind this call. The implications listed are all secondary to the potential donor, enumerating specifically benefits to the campaign in question given the hardships listed in the previous few paragraphs. The next paragraph appeals more directly to the reader if the previous incentives are in fact not sufficient cause to donate, revealing a prize that directly benefits the reader, pushing the donation as much as possible.

Then follows yet a single-line paragraph (“Will you make a donation of $25 now?”) followed by a link to donate, thus closing with a call to action and an easy way to do so. But if the addressee is still not convinced, the email continues! The remaining content is far more general, with the exception of a description of the prize to be had for donating, interleaved with several more instances of links to the donation page.

For the sake of brevity, this analysis ends here.

0 Responses to “Ignition.”

  1. 1 JB


    Your reading begins immediately, and acutely, in making strange the familiar: your reading of “Friend” takes seriously the imperative to examine most closely the presumably known. The interpretation of the word’s use, as paradoxically more intimate by virtue of its violation of “conventional wisdom” in the generic use of [insert name here] is extremely canny, in the full sense of that last term. (It would presuppose, though, the same knowledge on the part of all such “friends.”) You have in essence restored the original meaning of friend to the word by tracing its contextualization, wresting it from its more generic and impersonal usage. Canny.

    You do good work in moving between the larger arcs of the message, tracing the patterns of “two final calls” in reiterating the intent of the email as a whole—what you call the email’s “mission statement.” (This may be akin to a research paper’s “thesis.”)

    A few words on your own style follow. Your reading incorporates graceful and thorough characterizations like “concise with being impersonal”; this is commendable. I have already commented, casually, on “eschews transparency” as particularly felicitous. Too, words choice like “vagaries” is terrific. Two wobbles: 1. Your use of “enact”: one doesn’t enact “upon” something; one simple enacts (or doesn’t—but your point is that the email takes the enactment as a fait accompli). 2. a dropped word in the first line of the penultimate paragraph: “another” seems to be de-enacted. The point you’re making here is especially good, for it points to a repetition in form: the recurrence of single-line paragraph.

    Good work, friend.

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