Dickens“Mr Clennan?” said Mr Barnacle. “Be seated.”

Mr Clennan became seated.

“You have called on me, I believe,” said Mr Barnacle, “at the Circumlocution–” giving it the air of a word of about five-and-twenty-syllables, ” Office.” … “I have found a debtor in the Marshalsea prison of the name of Dorrit, who has been there many years. I wish to investigate his confused affairs, so far as to ascertain whether it may not be possible, after this lapse of time, to ameliorate his unhappy condition. The name of Mr Tite Barnacle has been mentioned to me as representing some highly influential interest among his creditors. Am I correctly informed?”

It being one of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer, Mr Barnacle said, “Possibly.”

“On behalf of the Crown, may I ask, or as a private individual?”

“The Circumlocution Department, sir,” Mr Barnacle replied, “may have possibly recommended – possibly – I cannot say – that some public claim against the insolvent estate of a firm or copartnership to which this person may have belonged, should be enforced. The question may have been, in the course of official business, referred to the Circumlocution Department for its consideration. The Department may have either originated, or confirmed, a Minute making that recommendation.”

“I assume this to be the case then.”

“The Circumlocution Department,” said Mr Barnacle, “is not responsible for any gentleman’s assumptions.”

“May I inquire how I can obtain official information as to the real state of the case?”

“It is competent,” said Mr Barnacle, “to any member of the–Public,” mentioning that obscure body with reluctance, as his natural enemy, “to memorialise the Circumlocution Department. Such formalities as are required to be observed in so doing, may be known on application to the proper branch of that Department.”
“Which is the proper branch?”

“I must refer you,” returned Mr Barnacle, ringing the bell, “to the Department itself for a formal answer to that inquiry.”

“Excuse my mentioning–”

“The Department is accessible to the–Public,” Mr Barnacle was always checked a little by that word of impertinent signification, “if the–Public approaches it according to the official forms; if the–Public does not approach it according to the official forms, the–Public has itself to blame.”

Mr Barnacle made him a severe bow, as a wounded man of family, a wounded man of place, and a wounded man of a gentlemanly residence, all rolled into one; and he made Mr Barnacle a bow, and was shut out into Mews Street by the flabby footman.
What can you learn from this passage from ‘Little Dorrit’ by Dickens?

– Dickens chooses wonderful names. (JK Rowling does the same.) In this case, a tight barnacle is a great image for a character who clings to proper process.

– He uses em-dashes to convey pauses. I do the same. I like an ellipsis too…

– Dialogue helps bring a story to life. This works in copy too, especially social media updates. – He picks delicious words e.g. ascertain, ameliorate, assumptions. It fills this copywriter with joy. Can you do it more in your copy?

– We know he writes about poverty in London. This extract is just one example. My advice? You’ll do best when you stick to your key topic/s.

– We also know he is critical of the establishment of the time. In the preface to the book, Dickens apologises for the ‘exaggerated fiction’ of the Barnacles and the Circumlocution Office, but then relates them to his experience of a Court of Enquiry at Chelsea and the Directors of a Royal British Bank. It seems not much has changed when dealing with officialdom and forms today! Can we make comms simpler? Yes we can.

– ‘Circumlocution Office’ is well named, as demonstrated in the snippet. My advice? When trying to make a point, show, don’t tell.

– Dickens uses repetition to great effect. See ‘possibly’ and ‘wounded man’. We copywriters can do that too.

– He uses humour. When it’s a fit with the tone of voice of the brand, product or service, we can bring a light touch to our copy. When done well, people love to read it. Let’s brighten their day.

– He also uses alliteration e.g. ‘flabby footman’. This is another device open to us.

Can you pick out any other learning points? Please let me know.

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