The Boilerplates are Boiling Over

Too often we take for granted the value of "communication". And, ironically, communication is a critical success factor in other things we take for granted: civilization; government; corporations; organizations; and professional and personal relationships. For all of these, continued development, improvement, and strength is possible only through communication. Without communication -- if an ongoing, open exchange of ideas and information does not occur -- even the "strongest" enterprise stagnates, then dies.

Modern technology assists us in communicating efficiently (whether the communication is effective is another matter). For example, word processing has "boilerplates". A boilerplate is a generic document which is copied and then altered, as required, to fit. Boilerplates are timesavers, in that after the words are written the first time, only fine tuning is required before the document is printed and sent. Particularly in our own industry, boilerplates are productive tools.

Unfortunately, it would appear that the idea of the boilerplate is being carried too far. The evidence for this comes from two unrelated-yet-related products.

The first product is a relatively new book entitled "Lifetime Encyclopedia of Letters". The advertising pamphlet bills it as "798 Business and Personal Letters for every conceivable situation or occasion... already written for you." The accompanying letter notes that "379 alternative opening and closing statements" are included. The guarantee is that this book will provide "at least 85% of all the business letters you'll ever have to write."

What is disturbing about this book is the potential end result if carried to extremes. The danger goes far beyond "simple" plagiarism: it is the idea that all our communication can be reduced to a lowest common denominator. "Dear Joe: Read letter #451 with #218 opening and #67 closing. Bob."

An encyclopedia of letters, or a diskette full of documents, certainly adds to the efficiency of communication. However, effective communication still requires that the original be edited, if it is used at all. Whether the document is a proposal or a letter, a personal touch is always warranted. The author must develop a genuine concern and interest and knowledge, then relate it accordingly. When the document is merely "write-by-number", it demonstrates that the reader has as much relevance to the "author" as everyone else who receives the same document. (A good example is any job applicant rejection letter containing the line "we will keep your resume on file....")

The other product of concern is a service called "Incurable Romantix", run by Elliot Essman, a New York freelance writer. For an annual fee, he sends twelve "personalized, fantasy love letters". Each month, a new letter is composed on a computer, printed, and mailed. Essman has two types of customers: those who don't receive such letters, and those who want to send the letters to someone else.

One obviously feels sorry for anyone who has decided on a lifetime subscription to this service. (One would also hope that they will soon meet their soulmate and thus be able to cancel out.) However, more worrisome is that these letters are being bought to be given to someone else. In such a transaction, there is more than one loser.

Clearly, one of the losers is whoever ultimately receives the "Incurable Romantix" love letter. The thoughts, feelings, sentiments, and aspirations expressed come from the wrong heart and mind and soul. Indeed, it is worse than hiring a Cyrano de Bergerac. Instead of being in proximity, Essman writes letters en masse for the masses. Despite the good, loving intentions, the receiver only gets the latest offering from the "Sonnet-of-the-Month Club".

The other, and perhaps biggest, loser is the sender or "writer" of the letter. Their loss is due in part to the misconception that if they do not have the talent for writing, they should let a professional do it. A letter truly written by the sender does not require divine perfection to be of heavenly value to the receiver. Such a letter is like a parent's coffee cup, pounded out of a slab of clay by a child: it doesn't matter how rough and imperfect it is; it has more touch and depth and feeling and warmth and passion than a complete tea set that was injection moulded.

The larger loss is what the sender of the letter misses out on by using a service. Expressing thoughts on paper is a process full of agony and ecstasy, torture and comfort, anguish and joy, anxiety and consolation. But the end result is well worth the sweat and tears and writer's cramp. Such writing provides the writer some distillation of understanding of the myriad of thoughts and feelings and sentiments and aspirations that may not have been seriously considered before. Furthermore, it helps the writer determine the depth and strength of the emotions involved. Such an opportunity for earnest, personal reflection is lost when the extent of one's involvement is to ask someone else to do a cold boot and crank out another copy.

Assuming he hasn't already done so, the next step for Elliot Essman would be to write a software package that will generate the letters on the user's microcomputer. This would be the expected progression, given our society's desire to develop communication. In meeting our society's needs, however, we must ensure that communication contains a human balance of efficiency and effectiveness. We are moving in the wrong direction if our thoughts will be expressed as a number from a book or disk file; if That Old Black Magic is to be converted into an array of binary digits; or if Cupid's arrows will be shot by a random number generator.

Vernon R.J. Schmid


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Copyright ©1987, 1996 Vernon R.J. Schmid. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: 2005-01-28.