Principles of Letter Writing - Forms - Notes
Many people seem to regard letter-writing as a very simple and easily
acquired branch, but on the contrary it is one of the most difficult
forms of composition and requires much patience and labor to master its
details. In fact there are very few perfect letter-writers in the
language. It constitutes the direct form of speech and may be called
conversation at a distance. Its forms are so varied by every conceivable
topic written at all times by all kinds of persons in all kinds of moods
and tempers and addressed to all kinds of persons of varying degrees in
society and of different pursuits in life, that no fixed rules can be
laid down to regulate its length, style or subject matter. Only general
suggestions can be made in regard to scope and purpose, and the forms of
indicting set forth which custom and precedent have sanctioned.
The principles of letter-writing should be understood by everybody who
has any knowledge of written language, for almost everybody at some time
or other has necessity to address some friend or acquaintance at a
distance, whereas comparatively few are called upon to direct their
efforts towards any other kind of composition.
Formerly the illiterate countryman, when he had occasion to communicate
with friends or relations, called in the peripatetic schoolmaster as his
amanuensis, but this had one draw-back,--secrets had to be poured into an
ear other than that for which they were intended, and often the
confidence was betrayed.
Now, that education is abroad in the land, there is seldom any occasion
for any person to call upon the service of another to compose and write a
personal letter. Very few now-a-days are so grossly illiterate as not to
be able to read and write. No matter how crude his effort may be it is
better for any one to write his own letters than trust to another. Even
if he should commence,--"deer fren, i lift up my pen to let ye no that i
hove been sik for the past 3 weeks, hopping this will findye the same,"
his spelling and construction can be excused in view of the fact that his
intention is good, and that he is doing his best to serve his own turn
without depending upon others.
The nature, substance and tone of any letter depend upon the occasion
that calls it forth, upon the person writing it and upon the person for
whom it is intended. Whether it should be easy or formal in style, plain
or ornate, light or serious, gay or grave, sentimental or matter-of-fact
depend upon these three circumstances.
In letter writing the first and most important requisites are to be
natural and simple; there should be no straining after effect, but simply
a spontaneous out-pouring of thoughts and ideas as they naturally occur
to the writer. We are repelled by a person who is stiff and labored in
his conversation and in the same way the stiff and labored letter bores
the reader. Whereas if it is light and in a conversational vein it
immediately engages his attention.
The letter which is written with the greatest facility is the best kind
of letter because it naturally expresses what is in the writer, he has
not to search for his words, they flow in a perfect unison with the ideas
he desires to communicate. When you write to your friend John Browne to
tell him how you spent Sunday you have not to look around for the words,
or study set phrases with a view to please or impress Browne, you just
tell him the same as if he were present before you, how you spent the
day, where you were, with whom you associated and the chief incidents
that occurred during the time. Thus, you write natural and it is such
writing that is adapted to epistolary correspondence.
There are different kinds of letters, each calling for a different style
of address and composition, nevertheless the natural key should be
maintained in all, that is to say, the writer should never attempt to
convey an impression that he is other than what he is. It would be silly
as well as vain for the common street laborer of a limited education to
try to put on literary airs and emulate a college professor; he may have
as good a brain, but it is not as well developed by education, and he
lacks the polish which society confers. When writing a letter the street
laborer should bear in mind that only the letter of a street-laborer is
expected from him, no matter to whom his communication may be addressed
and that neither the grammar nor the diction of a Chesterfield or
Gladstone is looked for in his language. Still the writer should keep in
mind the person to whom he is writing. If it is to an Archbishop or some
other great dignitary of Church or state it certainly should be couched
in terms different from those he uses to John Browne, his intimate
friend. Just as he cannot say "Dear John" to an Archbishop, no more can
he address him in the familiar words he uses to his friend of everyday
acquaintance and companionship. Yet there is no great learning required
to write to an Archbishop, no more than to an ordinary individual. All
the laborer needs to know is the form of address and how to properly
utilize his limited vocabulary to the best advantage. Here is the form
for such a letter:
17 Second Avenue,
New York City.
January 1st, 1910.
Most Rev. P. A. Jordan,
Archbishop of New York.
Most Rev. and dear Sir:--
While sweeping the crossing at Fifth
Avenue and 50th street on last Wednesday
morning, I found the enclosed Fifty Dollar
Bill, which I am sending to you in the hope
that it may be restored to the rightful
I beg you will acknowledge receipt and
should the owner be found I trust you will
notify me, so that I may claim some reward
for my honesty.
I am, Most Rev. and dear Sir,
Very respectfully yours,
Observe the brevity of the letter. Jones makes no suggestions to the
Archbishop how to find the owner, for he knows the course the Archbishop
will adopt, of having the finding of the bill announced from the Church
pulpits. Could Jones himself find the owner there would be no occasion to
apply to the Archbishop.
This letter, it is true, is different from that which he would send to
Browne. Nevertheless it is simple without being familiar, is just a plain
statement, and is as much to the point for its purpose as if it were
garnished with rhetoric and "words of learned length and thundering
Letters may be divided into those of friendship, acquaintanceship, those
of business relations, those written in an official capacity by public
servants, those designed to teach, and those which give accounts of the
daily happenings on the stage of life, in other words, news letters.
Letters of friendship are the most common and their style and form
depend upon the degree of relationship and intimacy existing between the
writers and those addressed. Between relatives and intimate friends the
beginning and end may be in the most familiar form of conversation,
either affectionate or playful. They should, however, never overstep the
boundaries of decency and propriety, for it is well to remember that,
unlike conversation, which only is heard by the ears for which it is
intended, written words may come under eyes other than those for whom
they were designed. Therefore, it is well never to write anything which
the world may not read without detriment to your character or your
instincts. You can be joyful, playful, jocose, give vent to your feelings,
but never stoop to low language and, above all, to language savoring in
the slightest degree of moral impropriety.
Business letters are of the utmost importance on account of the
interests involved. The business character of a man or of a firm is often
judged by the correspondence. On many occasions letters instead of
developing trade and business interests and gaining clientele, predispose
people unfavorably towards those whom they are designed to benefit.
Ambiguous, slip-shod language is a detriment to success. Business letters
should be clear, concise, to the point and, above all, honest, giving no
wrong impressions or holding out any inducements that cannot be fulfilled.
In business letters, just as in business conduct, honesty is always the
Official letters are mostly always formal. They should possess clearness,
brevity and dignity of tone to impress the receivers with the proper
respect for the national laws and institutions.
Letters designed to teach or didactic letters are in a class all by
themselves. They are simply literature in the form of letters and are
employed by some of the best writers to give their thoughts and ideas a
greater emphasis. The most conspicuous example of this kind of composition
is the book on Etiquette by Lord Chesterfield, which took the form of a
series of letters to his son.
News letters are accounts of world happenings and descriptions of
ceremonies and events sent into the newspapers. Some of the best authors
of our time are newspaper men who write in an easy flowing style which is
most readable, full of humor and fancy and which carries one along with
breathless interest from beginning to end.
The principal parts of a letter are (1) the heading or introduction;
(2) the body or substance of the letter; (3) the subscription or
closing expression and signature; (4) the address or direction on the
envelope. For the body of a letter no forms or rules can be laid down
as it altogether depends on the nature of the letter and the relationship
between the writer and the person addressed.
There are certain rules which govern the other three features and which
custom has sanctioned. Every one should be acquainted with these rules.
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