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Book review: Write the Right Words
by Sandra E. Lamb

Write the Right Words: Messages from the heart for every occasion, by Sandra E. Lamb Write the Right Words: Messages from the heart for every occasion
by Sandra E. Lamb

2010, St. Martin's Press, New York
225 pages

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You've found the perfect greetings card for the occasion, but what to write in it? Write the Right Words aims to put an end to your message-related writer's block, with 225 pages of advice, encouragement, examples and quotes.
Author Sandra E. Lamb is keen to promote the value of writing as connecting developing relationships not only with family and friends but also with an employee who has acted above and beyond the call of duty, or a neighbor who has performed a special act of kindness. The writing of personal messages, be they of thanks, love or sympathy, she urges, should be an important part of your life.

What's more, she strongly endorses the handwritten message. But don't be too perturbed if you are the type who is wedded to your keyboard the ideas in this useful book are equally practical to those sending e-mails. Similarly, despite the pink cherry blossoms on the cover, this is not a particularly 'girly' book and would be as valuable to a male correspondent as to a female one.

The book is divided into broad message categories: Happy Days, Holidays, Social Grace, Care & Concern, and, last but not least, Creating New Relationships. Specific message sections range from standard birthday and wedding greetings to sympathy notes, birth announcements, reconnecting with old friends, apologies, and letters of forgiveness. There are also bon voyage messages, retirement messages and even love letter suggestions (although personally I found these cheesy in the extreme, and the least useful part of the book). Thank you notes and messages of appreciation are broken down into three stages naming the gift, act or service that one is thankful for, acknowledging it, and conveying appreciation with more than a dozen suggestions for each stage. At the back of the book is a 'dates to remember' section where you can record birthdays, anniversaries etc. useful if you haven't yet created your own correspondence/gratitude folder.

Each section has a brief introduction, notes on message etiquette, and a selection of 'quotable quotes'. These are followed by several dozen sample messages. Turning to weddings, for example, the introduction suggests that we might consider sending additional cards to key members of the happy couple's families. The message etiquette section urges us to think of our words as a 'warm and loving embrace', with a list of hints for achieving the right tone and level of familiarity. Six 'quotable quotes' follow, from the likes of Shakespeare and Emerson, then 27 sample messages to the couple, each comprising between one and three lines. Finally, there are nine examples of wedding-related messages to family members.

There are many useful nuggets here, although many of these 'happy occasion' sample messages come across to my mind as a little too breathless and effusive. Praise is heaped on, everything tends to be 'perfect' and 'sensational', and the tone sometimes veers towards the overly formal. Non-American readers may find many of the examples a little, well, over-the-top!

On the other hand, I find the writer's sample messages for more difficult situations (sympathy, loss, illness etc.) to be very good. In fact, the book is really at its best with the many very useable suggestions for the sensitive handling of these 'dark times'. The quotes in these sections are also particularly helpful.

These 'messages of care and concern' cover illness (both minor and serious), divorce, loss, and offering condolence and comfort in the darkest times. The author doesn't shy away from the worst scenarios, such as the loss of a child, or being the victim of serious crime. In each case, we are taken step by step through the process of writing the message, with numerous examples. The tact, sensitivity and empathy displayed in this section make me think that the author must surely be a genuinely kind person. Should you be in the unfortunate position of needing to compose a message in such circumstances, Write the Right Words could prove worth its weight in gold.

The author's general 'niceness' comes across again in the inclusivity of her examples. Mother's (and Father's) Day messages include specific examples for step-parents. In-laws are not forgotten, nor are children with a special section devoted to get-well messages for kids, and the thoughtful suggestion that children might appreciate their own special card on the arrival of a new baby brother or sister.

More unusual (and often neglected) occasions are also covered, such as announcing an adoption, the breaking of an engagement, or the loss of a job. Each has suggestions both for the announcement, and very helpfully for how to respond to such messages. Finally, a brief section deals with apologies, forgiveness, and cementing and healing relationships.

Of course, the suggestions are just that, and most will require some adaptation to your particular situation. The author talks at some length about 'infusing your words... with your own voice', and urges readers to treat the suggestions as a jumping-off point for their own inspiration.

So many letter-writing and manners books concentrate on congratulations and happy events. By contrast, Write the Right Words is especially strong on the sadder, more difficult events and periods of life. These sections alone justify purchasing the book.

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