Before email, letter-writing guides were best sellers, the faddy self-help books of their day. There are still many things that we can learn from them before pressing “send”, says Simon Garfield.
1. Keep it brief, make it simple. This advice first appeared in a Latin tract somewhere between the 4th Century BC and 4th Century AD. A letter should be “restricted”, it advised. “Those that are too long, not to mention too inflated in style, are not in any true sense letters at all but treatises.” Correspondents were told to be both graceful and plain. “A letter’s aim is to express friendship briefly and set out a simple subject in simple terms. The man who utters sententious maxims and exhortations seems to be no longer chatting in a letter but preaching from the pulpit.”
2. Write as you speak. This advice, much favoured by Jane Austen, is believed to have been initially promoted by Aristotle in about 360BC. His precise instructions do not survive, but Artemon, the editor of Aristotle’s letters, maintained that “a letter should be written in the same manner as a dialogue”.
3. Don’t be afraid to grovel. Want to say thanks for dinner? Look to the writing manual by Hugh of Bologna from the 12th Century. One of Europe’s epistolary masters, Hugh’s compliments knew no ceiling. In a letter to another scribe, he observes how, under his guidance, “the uneducated are immediately cultivated, the stutterers are immediately eloquent, the dull-witted are immediately enlightened, the twisted are immediately made straight”. May also do the trick when applying for a job or a loan.
4. Be spontaneous, be free. Progressive French 16th Century essayist Michel de Montaigne suggested that formality spelled death to authentic correspondence. He mistrusted letters that “have no other substance than a fine contexture of courteous words”. Far better to be spontaneous and not think too much. “The first word begets the second, and so to the end,” he wrote. Montaigne really would have loved email, not least our growing tendency to dispense with formal greetings and endings. “The letters of this age consist more in fine edges and prefaces than in matter,” he argued. And for the closing niceties, “I would with all my heart transfer it to another hand to add those long harangues, offers, and prayers that we place at the bottom, and should be glad that some new custom would discharge us of that trouble.”
5. Tell it like it is. In the guide Cupids Messenger of 1629, the anonymous author told his readers how to write to an unfaithful partner. There was really no point being polite. Far better to be bilious and vengeful. “Leprosie compared to thee is all health… neither thy bodie nor thy soule are free from the disease of shame and disgrace of the world.” Try this ancient advice first, and only then revert to the more modern solution of a letter from a solicitor.
6. Write back swiftly, but carefully. In 1686, Philip, second Earl of Chesterfield, wrote a book of instruction for his eldest daughter. Some of it concerned the layout of a letter (“If you write to a Queen, begin your first line within three fingers breadth of the bottom of the paper”), but there was also advice we may heed today. He advised his daughter to carefully re-read what she had written before sending it, checking her spelling with a dictionary and making sure not to repeat words. But above all be prompt. “It is a very great incivilitie not to answer all the letters we do receive, except they come from our servants or very mean persons.”
7. Emotional blackmail may work with your parents. The Ladies Complete Letter-Writer of 1763 offered “polite and improving” advice on all matters “that usually interest the Fair Sex”. There were template letters about the lasting impact of scandal and the dangers of over-flirtatious behaviour, and details of how to write to a woman who had lost her beauty to smallpox. But within the 275 pages there was also something that may be emailed today (albeit with slightly modified language) to an overbearing parent determined to match-make. “Punish me by any other means provoked authority can invent,” an unidentified daughter pleads with her mother. “Condemn me to pass the whole remainder of my days in lonely solitude; shut me from all society, or banish me where only lions and tigers dwell. Fate cannot reach me in any shape so horrid as the embraces of Andrugio.”
8. Be more polite than you really want to be. Lewis Carroll loved letter-writing so much that in 1888 he patented something called The Wonderland, a special case with a pocket to house every denomination of postage stamp. You bought the case and you got a free booklet entitled Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing, some of it concerned with not missing the last post. But there was also something we can use today – advice on showing restraint. Notwithstanding rule five – tell it like it is – Carroll warned his readers to think very carefully before getting involved in a Trollopian war. “If you have written anything that may offend, put the letter aside for a day and then read it as if you were the recipient,” he wrote. “This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead.” Carroll’s other rules:
- if your correspondent makes a severe remark, either ignore it or soften your response
- if your friend is friendly, make your reply ever friendlier
9. Don’t forget the paper clip. Carroll had one more piece of wisdom, as applicable now as 125 years ago. If you write that you’re enclosing a cheque or someone else’s letter, “leave off writing for a moment – go and get the document referred to – and put it into the envelope. Otherwise, you are pretty certain to find it lying about, after the post has gone!” For “cheque” read “email attachment”.
10. The young get all the blame. In All The Year Round, the Victorian journal “conducted” by Charles Dickens, a contributor wrote a letter-writing guide that contained the one nugget common to almost all the guides that had preceded it – write legibly. But what of those who can write but don’t? “This is more generally the fault of young people, and arises chiefly from thoughtless selfishness. Their thoughts and their time are engrossed with their own pleasures and pursuits. It is more amusing and interesting to write to young people of their own age than to write duty letters to parents and relatives.” Do these terrible people not write at all? “A shabby, ill-considered, stilted letter is written at wide intervals to those whose whole life has been spent in their service, while folios of trash are lavished on bosom friends to whom they owe no duty whatsoever.” Texting was only a century away…
PS If all else fails, send fish. Key To English Letter Writing was a guide that could have been written by Douglas Adams. But it appeared in 1938 in China, and its authors were Chen Kwan Yi and Whang Shih. Unlike Anglo-American guides, its letter templates did not consider how best to address a duchess. Instead, the examples were both more mundane and, conceptually, more profound. How, for example, should one write to a newlywed? Like this: “I have heard from Mr B that you were married to Miss C last Wednesday. I beg your acceptance of the accompanying fish as a trifling token of my affection.” And when that marriage proves fruitful? “Allow me to congratulate you on the birth of a child in your family. I beg you will accept the accompanying basket of mixed fish which I send you in celebration of the happy event.” Would a promotion, perhaps in the legal profession, also yield a fish gift? Sadly not. “Sir, I learn with pleasure that you have been admitted to the bar and have established yourself in private chambers. Please accept the accompanying bicycle as a slight token of my wishes for your future success.”
This gifting advice has a modern equivalent in the form of dreaded e-cards and text emoticons. Rather less satisfying than a good piece of cod or a 12-speed though.