an effective (and yet humorous) complaint letter

I get a lot of satisfaction out of a well written letter, especially when I have to approach some official body about what I see as a mistake on their part.

Writing a complaint letter is an art. Just the right combination of clean cold fact, logical argument, and subtle snark. The only problem with writing such a letter is that you don’t get to see the reaction when the person on the other end reads it. The blanching, in severe cases, when somebody realizes that they’ve been scre


wing with a person who (1) knows how to defend themselves; (2) is willing to do so; and (3) has jumped right to the punch line.

Not that I write a lot of these letters, you understand. Maybe five in my life, total.

Almost as good is writing a funny complaint letter. A letter where there’s no quite so much at stake, where negotiation is still open and personality might actually get you somewhere.


Which brings me to RivkaT’s letter to a law journal.

I don’t know RivkaT, and I only meant to take a brief look at her LivfeJournal because she and I share some books on LibraryThing that nobody else has. And my reward for clicking through? The letter she wrote and (unfortunately) never sent.

Clearly RivkaT is a lawyer of some kind, and writes for professional journals. Someday maybe I will record some of my own experiences with academic journals during the seventeen years I was first a graduate student and then a professor. But for the moment, RivkaT’s letter gives you a vague idea of what it’s like to be able to write — really write — and not be allowed to do that. She wrote (in part):

[…] the reason you liked this article so much was that it didn’t read like all the others you get. Thus, your attempt to flatten the language so that it reads more like a law review article is a mistake. I’ll give you the elimination of all the contractions; I’ll even give you most of the extra “that”s and “which”s. But understand that, while I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake, I can be a more engaging writer than you’re allowing me to be.

And in conclusion: You are preventing me from writing fanfiction. Well, you and the three other deadlines for actual work, but I blame you anyway.

Woot, RivkaT.

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5 Replies to “an effective (and yet humorous) complaint letter”

  1. I’m a total complaint letter writer. If I believe some wrong has been done to me, especially in a setting in which I have recourse, I will have a total b*tch fit and write some nasty stuff. Then the next day when my temper’s cooled I’ll winnow it down some, take the four letter words out and make it more logical to follow.

    I can appreciate the letter you posted, I also have many I’ve worked on that I never ended up sending out as well.

    Of course I don’t spend all of my time being rotten. I have been known to write letters to people or their supervisors if they have treated me well or gone out of their way to help me.

    These are the sort of things which come into play when it comes time to figure out bonuses and the like and I’d like to do these folks the same good turn they’ve done for me. Or at least that’s the hope.

  2. That is a fabulous letter. (Small world note: She is, of course, a friend of D’s. And has written some very good fanfiction, mostly in Buffy, X-files, and Smallville.)

  3. Sounds like Rivka’s law journal is “edited” by the same offshored firm we have to deal with. There’s a fine line between actual jargon and terms the audience is so familiar with that it’s stupid to give definitions — and the robocopyeditors never know where it is.

    I know why Rivka didn’t send her letter: it’s because, like so many of my brilliantly worded complaint e-mails of late, it would have been answered by some poor wage slave who missed the point and responded by giving instructions on how to set cookies in the Web browser, or some other totally irrelevant matter.

    Good complaint letters, just like good fiction, require an appropriate audience.

  4. I’ve always enjoyed writing a complaint letter, receiving some sort of token measure to appease me, then writing again asking for what I want and being sent up the email/phone chain till it gets resolved. I’m not too much of a b&*^%, only when their attitude stinks, but I really wish I could see their faces when they realize I have a brain, I have been wronged, and I’m not letting them off so quickly.

  5. This has little to do with your excellent post, but I just wanted to tell you I am watching the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”…watched three hours of it over the past two days and I absolutely love it! I see what you mean now by this being the definitive version. It has captivated me, especially the two leads.

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