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,

Thomas Jones.

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

best policy.

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.

LESSFEWER LETTERS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail