Wednesday, September 16, 2020

How to improve writing (no. 88)

When you take care with writing, it’s difficult to stop. And so I found myself paying attention to these paragraphs on a box of Tetley British Blend tea bags:

Celebrating the True British Cuppa

Tetley Tea proudly celebrates 185 years of tea expertise in crafting the perfect brew. Known for its authentic British heritage, Tetley master blenders have lovingly created our best selling British Blend from the finest tea leaves around the world including Africa and Assam to give you a rich, bold and flavorful cup of authentic British style black tea. This robust, full bodied tea is perfect for your everyday pick me up.

Try it with a dash of milk for that royal experience!
It’s good strong tea, and it leaves a powerful tannin stain in the cup. But that’s pretty poor writing. “Proudly celebrates”: as opposed to “ashamedly celebrates”? “Known for its authentic British heritage”: a glaring dangling modifier. The clash of its and our presents a tricky problem of agreement. “Lovingly created”: oh please. “Around the world including Africa and Assam” sounds awkward. The march of adjectives — rich, bold, flavorful, robust, full bodied — is a bit much. That second sentence from beginning to end is unwieldy — try reading it aloud. And the first paragraph is short on hyphens, needing five to make things right. I can’t believe someone was paid to write this stuff.

Here’s my suggested revision, which fixes these problems and drops some of the hype:
Celebrating the British Cuppa

Tetley Tea celebrates its 185-year British heritage with the best-selling Tetley British Blend. Tetley master blenders bring together the finest tea leaves from Africa, Assam, and around the world to give you a rich, flavorful cup of authentic British-style black tea. Perfect for your everyday pick-me-up. Try it with a dash of milk for a royal experience.
I’ve let some of the nonsense (“cuppa” and “royal experience”) stand. But I’d suggest that my understated paragraph is far more British than Tetley’s original.

I remember a far simpler Tetley pitch: “I like those tiny little tea leaves in Tetley tea.” Yes, it was a simpler time.

Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 88 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 5

Matthew Schmeer said...

Ah, but your revision doesn't make the reader emote that exquisite feeling of being a trendsetter among the hipster elite by partaking in the most fuddy-duddy of British traditions: a really good cuppa. Ah, to be an American, pierced, tattooed youth pining to feel as if they belong to something greater than themself by imbibing the dregs of tea dust soaked in boiling water! If only life could be so grand!

Michael Leddy said...

Ha! I think the real audience for this cuppa nonsense is Downton Abbey fans and people with NPR totes. :)

Richard Abbott said...

Oddly, as a Brit I have no problems with the "proudly celebrates" bit - this kind of wordy blurby advertising copy typically does add some sort of modifier like that, presumably so the reader can covertly vicariously involve themselves in the celebration in the right mood (proudly, rather than quietly, happily, in amazement etc).

Equally, that phrase "known for its authentic British heritage" - whilst I would question the truthfulness of the assertion, it serves the important purpose of saying to the reader "you jolly well ought to know who we are without us saying, but just in case you've been in some other country these last few decades..."

I totally agree it needs more commas! Unless this is cunningly deliberate... the string of adjectives you point out suggest that the desired effect was a kind of breathless gush of positivity. One can imagine some suited manager in an oak-clad office calling out "Algernon, give me something for the American market - I need it in the next ten minutes."

Finally, of course, like all advertising chatter it's all hogwash. Real tea-drinking Brits know full well that Tetleys is a rather inferior and poor quality brand. Their "tiny little tea leaves" are less charitably described as "dust" by those in the know. It's just not very nice tea, and all thee words are simply a fig-leaf...

You might find this page entertaining - especially the description under the Best Black Tea section ( Of all the brands listed there, the only ones you're likely to find easily in shops are Yorkshire Tea and Twinings - the others will only be in specialist shops! (My own personal favourite brand, Whittard of Chelsea, sadly didn't make that shortlist...

Fresca said...

I love your How to Write series, as you know.

"Africa and Assam"--
does the entire continent of Africa supply them with tea, while only the state of Assam in the Indian subcontinent does?

No, of course not. I looked it up:
"Tea producing countries in Africa include Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa producing about 30% of world exports ...."

But how to say that succinctly?
"East Africa" (though not all are east)?
"Tea-growing regions of Africa and India"?
Or, "from Assam to South Africa and other tea-growing regions of the world"?

Thanks for the fun!

Michael Leddy said...

@Richard: I used to be much more particular about tea. As a grad student I drank nothing but Twinings loose teas — Assam (I miss that one), Black Currant, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Lapsang Souchong, Oolong, Orange Pekoe, Prince of Wales. I’m visualizing the tins, stacked two high. The loose teas were far superior to Twinings in bags, especially the Earl Grey. (And Twinings Earl Grey now, even loose, is a shadow of its former self.)

Now it’s mostly bags — we have some Twinings Irish Breakfast (loose) in the house, and in bags, Twinings English Breakfast, Red Rose Irish Breakfast, and Republic of Tea Earl Greyer (sic). And the Tetley, which was a supermarket buy — we gotta have more tea in the house. And I do think it’s good. But I do know there’s much better.

@Fresca: the “Africa” point went right by me (even though I know the saying: “Africa is not a country”). Assam is important with tea — that’s the variety that gives Irish Breakfast tea its malty flavor. Maybe Tetley could choose one country — “Assam, Kenya, and around the world.”